Monday, July 4, 2011

What Is Patriotism?

I wrote this essay for a writing contest hosted by Hot Psychology magazine back in 2007. It took 2nd place.
My views have changed just a little bit since then, but since I just returned from vacation (a fantastic, long weekend in Ft. Myers), I thought it'd be okay to cheat a little, and repost this today, in honor of Independence Day. Happy 4th everyone!

I was working on my writing degree in 2001, teaching preschool at “Love ‘N Laugher” in the morning for extra income. It was a small school, 60 families in an 80-year old home that the owner had converted into a preschool. White brick with little red awnings, sidewalk chalk up and down the driveway, clapboard fence surrounding a happy playground filled with swings, slides and running toddlers. It was quaint. Cozy. Safe. One of a million little schoolhouses all over the world.

Once the children were down for their nap, the afternoon teacher would relieve me, and I’d head to my own classes. Universities tend to lean left, politically, and at the time, I was married to a right-wing Republican. I never had much opinion on political matters. Instead I tended to let my husband sway me, just as our parents’ beliefs sway us in our youth. Once I went back to school for my bachelor’s though, I became a little more opinionated. Maybe it was the University environment, maybe it was the strain on my marriage, maybe I was finally finding my voice, and over time, confidence in that voice. Whatever it was, I felt more and more compassion for the soldiers, and less and less for the government – ours or anyone else’s.

July 4 was always a favorite of the preschoolers at Love N Laughter. The kids celebrated by waving little American flags, singing “patriotic” songs and creating “firework” art by throwing paint-drenched Koosh balls at black construction paper. I can remember walking into the little school house the morning of September 11, 2001, a weary eye on the sky, half expecting to see fighter jets flying overhead. I can remember wondering if there were preschool teachers walking into little schoolhouse in Iraq, or Cuba, or Vietnam that morning. What makes us different from any of them? Surely they were familiar with the fear of the unknown, as I was for the first time that morning.

I can’t imagine anyone talking or writing about Patriotism without mentioning 9/11 in some way. Pre-9/11 America and Post-9/11 America. Of course, most would say that, as a country, we are much more “patriotic” now.

But what does that mean? Because our country was attacked in such a massive, public, horrifying way, that we suddenly became more proud of our country? Willing to fight back? We got flag happy, I think. We rallied around the troops, the government, and the “war on terror." These aren’t bad things, of course, but it did feel very “Republican."

If patriotism is this simple, why does it always seem to be a political issue? If we are against the “war on terror” then we’re not patriotic. If we’re all for it – we’re murdering, war lovers. What if patriotism is just about having that sense of peace within us that somehow things will be okay? What if it’s just about waving that little flag and smiling as you walk past a stranger – sharing a common bond – even for just that day.
It’s our right as Americans – born in a free country – to choose our politics. Are we Republican or Democrat? Do we back the president, or back away? Whichever way we lean politically – we should be proud that we have that right. We should be grateful for the opportunity to choose and speak out without fear. Why fight with the leftist next door because you’re right wing? Be glad that both of you have respect and love enough for your country to use your rights. Be patriotic – and smile at the opposing team – just for today.

That first 4th of July – 2002 – was a big one for our country. But things at Love ‘N Laughter were exactly as they’d been for the past 19 July 4th celebrations. Same little flags, same paint-smattered little hands, same smiles, giggles, shouts.

That little school house hasn’t changed in the last six years. There is still no lock on the front door. No iron gates at the end of the driveway. No metal detectors or rent-a-cops.
It is still the same, peaceful, cozy place it was pre-9/11. One small sign that maybe we really our patriotic – we really do believe in our peace. Is it na├»ve? Maybe. But it’s American. How patriotic is that?

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