Nina Salas was six years old when she was branded unpatriotic by school officials. The frazzled principal Mr. Kirk, her matronly first-grade teacher Mrs. Clayton, and the grouchy secretary at the front desk all agreed: Nina was unpatriotic.
Every morning, Nina’s teacher stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. She put her hand over her heart and requested the students do the same. Mrs. Clayton started, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” and the kids recited it in unison. Nina repeated the same lines every day, never thinking about it, out of sync, and sometimes forgetting what came next. It was a lot to remember, but she did as she was told. Nina felt safety in following the rules. Look both ways when crossing, don’t take candy from strangers, be home before the sun sets, do your homework, eat all your vegetables. Nina took comfort in doing things the right way. The jellies she’d gotten at the swap meet the weekend before made her feet sweat. She scrunched her toes as the class went on, “and to the Republic … for which it stands … ”
Although she grew up in the same neighborhood as her classmates and watched the same television shows, Nina felt different. She didn’t know how exactly. When the girls in her class wanted to play hopscotch, Nina wanted to play marbles. They made fun of her, but she played anyway. Marbles had rules, lines to follow. The sixth graders at the tetherball were mean. One girl, who played to win, liked to go up against the younger kids and aim for their heads. Nina watched as hapless kids were lured to the pole by a false promise. “I swear, I won’t hit you,” the big girl would say. Sure enough, some little kid got whacked in the head with the hard, yellow ball and ran off crying. Marbles were safer, but boys could be callous. Nina only had a few marbles, which meant she was poor, and they teased her for it. She wanted the boys to like her, so she let them win.
'You don’t need to know what it means, just say it.' Mrs. Clayton clenched and unclenched her arthritic hands and said, 'Everyone. Start again. I pledge allegiance … '
One morning, as Nina recited the pledge, the word “allegiance” caught her attention. It occurred to her she didn’t know the meaning. A word too big for the first-grade vocabulary list. It rolled around in her brain. She scrunched her eyebrows and wondered how to spell it.
“Nina,” Mrs. Clayton said.
Nina’s attention was then swept away by a family of birds on the tree outside the window. She watched the mommy bird flutter back and forth. She looked for the daddy and couldn’t find him. When she squinted, she could see the babies’ tiny beaks peeping and going crazy for worms. Nina smiled. The sky was a brilliant blue and bursting with great big clouds. She watched them travel. Was she moving, or were they?
“Nina!” Mrs. Clayton said again.
“Huh?” Nina said.
“Why aren’t you saying the Pledge of Allegiance?”
“I was, but I had to stop.”
Mrs. Clayton tugged at her cardigan and grimaced.
“You don’t stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“What does it mean?” Nina asked.
Nina, still standing, wasn’t aware that the entire class was staring at her. She glanced out the window again. Always distracted, Nina preferred the outside world to the stuffy classroom. She liked the way the leaves on the trees moved. No one else noticed this. No one else cared. Leaves on trees were infinitely more interesting than learning cursive. The mommy bird flew out and returned. Like real moms.
“What does what mean?” Mrs. Clayton asked.
“Allegiance,” Nina replied.
“You don’t need to know what it means, just say it.” Mrs. Clayton clenched and unclenched her arthritic hands and said, “Everyone. Start again. I pledge allegiance … ”
Nina put her hand to her heart but did not recite the pledge. She knew what pledge meant. It was serious. It meant you were dedicating yourself to something. Like a club. Being in a club was big time. But what did allegiance mean? The more Nina thought about it, the less it made sense. What did they want from her exactly? What did her allegiance mean?
“Nina!” Mrs. Clayton repeated. “I won’t ask you again.”
The class continued where they left off and Nina, just to appease her teacher, moved her mouth as if she were speaking the words. She could not pledge anything unless she understood what that meant.
The more Nina thought about it, the less it made sense. What did they want from her exactly? What did her allegiance mean?
That afternoon, Nina went home, with allegiance on her mind. She didn’t know how to use a dictionary, and her parents were no help. Her dad was always drunk by dinnertime, and her mom worked the graveyard shift. Nina got distracted watching Joanie Loves Chachi and thought about marrying Scott Baio when she was old enough. She did her homework and fell asleep on the lava-colored carpet with her baby brother curled up beside her. But it all came back the next morning when 35 kids stood, and Nina did not.
“Stand up!” Mrs. Clayton demanded.
“I don’t understand the word,” Nina said.
“You don’t have to understand it, just say it.”
“I can’t pledge something if I don’t know what it means.”
Mrs. Clayton tugged at her cardigan and huffed. She walked out of the class and was gone a long time.
“You’re gonna get detention,” her classmates teased. Nina just watched the birds. “They’re gonna put you on the squares.”
The squares, formerly a game called Four Square, were how the teachers punished the bad kids. One kid on each corner. No talking. You just had to stand there in the hot sun and watch all the other kids play. The blacktop burned through your shoes. It felt terrible. But even though the kids were razzing her and she sensed the actual threat of punishment, she watched the door and had this feeling: She was right. That’s all she knew.
She opened her Pee Chee folder and took out a No. 2 pencil. She wrote her name to make it seem like she was too busy to pay attention to her classmates, who were now talking about her amongst themselves. When Mr. Dirk appeared at the doorway, he called her name and the class went stiff.
“Nina,” he said. He snapped his fingers and gestured for her to get up. “Grab your things.”
The class gasped.
Nina followed Mr. Dirk, with Pee Chee and her first-grade reader tucked under her arm. The clicks of his scuffed loafers echoed off unsympathetic concrete and faded plaster walls once salmon-colored, now beige and grubby. They entered the office, a place she’d only been to once when she couldn’t find the library. The grouchy secretary shook her head. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said.
The Principal’s office looked and felt important with certificates on the walls, pictures in gold frames, a big phone with blinky lights, fancy pens, and many books. Nina was instructed to sit. She watched Mr. Dirk call her parents. She read the spines of his neatly organized binders. She examined the official-looking papers in haphazard stacks. She focused on the short-pile carpet, the gray stains, the threadbare paths where people walked, the fibers that stuck out like strands of hair. She looked up at the acoustic ceiling with all those little holes and pencil marks where people had thrown their pencils as if they were darts. And then her parents were there. Dust fell in minuscule flakes, catching the sunlight from the window like fairy sparkles. She heard the phone ring in the other room. A red van drove by, visible through the heavy venetian blinds. A dog barked, and another car drove by, and another, and she kept counting the cars until she got bored.
“She’s disobedient!” Mr. Dirk said. “We can’t have that in our school.”
The arms of the chair were faded at the edges where tiny, sweaty hands had gripped it.
She heard the word expulsion and didn’t really know what it meant. She just knew it wasn’t good.
'You’re an American. You say the pledge! I didn’t come to this country to have one of my kids be called unpatriotic!'
“Well?” her father asked her. He smelled like he’d had a beer or three. Her mom smelled like Jovan Musk and sat in a chair on the side, in the shadows as if she wasn’t really there.
“No one would tell me what the word means,” Nina said. “I’ll say whatever you want. Just tell me what it means.”
“When your teacher tells you to say something, you say it – especially the Pledge of Allegiance,” her father said. “You’re an American. You say the pledge! I didn’t come to this country to have one of my kids be called unpatriotic!”
“Fine,” she replied with a smirk.
“You promise you’ll say it every day?” Mr. Dirk asked.
“Yes. I promise.”
“Good. Glad to see you understand. You may go now,” he said.
Nina’s parents took her home. No one said anything other than telling her how embarrassed they were. This, Nina did not understand. Nina loved America. How was she unpatriotic just because she was asking to know the definition of a word?
The next day, as soon as Mrs. Clayton turned her steely glance, Nina moved her lips in time, but she did not say the pledge. She finally had a definition for allegiance. To Nina, it would always mean obedience.
Kristen Simental, an emerging Latinx author, has pursued music, photography and literature all her life. Born in East Los Angeles and raised in Oxnard, Kristen tackled her world with curiosity, passion and defiance. At age 18, she left Oxnard for the LA music scene. She started one of the first independent online music sites, Dark Culture Magazine. In 2016, while sidelined with a long illness, Kristen wrote first drafts of four novels, five short stories and two novellas. Her first piece was published in Sheriff Nottingham that year. Her novella, Why Arizona has been awarded the 2020 de Groot Prize. She is currently working towards a degree in English and Journalism and has recently started Five South, an online literary journal. Find her on Twitter @kris10simental and on her personal page at www.kristensimental.com.
Lydia Mushili is a 2-Dimensional digital artist with a heavy focus on portraiture. Their love for storytelling has sparked their recent foray into entertainment media forms and editorial illustration. They are currently focused on expanding their skills so they may one day publish the comics they have in development. They favor psychological themes, social commentary, and representation of under-represented communities in the media, mainly queer, BIPOC femmes. Find them on ArtStation and Instagram @liddiemoo.
About the Artwork:
Digital Illustration / 2020 / 14 x 9 inches
After reading this lovely article, what came to mind was mindless repetition and the thoughtless indoctrination of children.