IT WAS THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE THING I’D EVER SEEN. I was twelve years old, the year was 1964. Every morning in school we stood, faced the American flag, put our hand over our heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance.
But one morning, halfway through the pledge, my buddy nudged me and motioned with his head for me to look behind us. Sure, that would be the wrong thing to do and risked raising the ire of my teacher, a former Marine who was pretty insistent on things being done his way, but hey, I was twelve years old. So I glanced backward and saw the new kid sitting in his chair looking down at his hands in his lap. To say that I was stunned would be a gross understatement.
I thought that perhaps he just didn’t know what the drill was in Mr. Traylor class, so I tried to get his attention so I could motion for him to at least stand up. I’m sure I looked like a gecko with one eye focused on the flag and Mr. Traylor and the other focused on the new kid.
For an unknown reason to me, Mr. Traylor looked over his shoulder in my direction. (Maybe it’s true that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads.) He gave me a look that made my blood freeze. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned a bit to the left to give him a line of sight to the boy behind me. (Yes, I gave up the usurper for the sake of saving my own hide.)
As soon as the pledge ended, we all sat down and stared as Mr. Traylor marched toward the boy behind me. I heard the three words that no student EVER wanted to hear, “Come with me.”
The “prisoner of war” was escorted by Mr. Traylor to the cloak room, a small room in the back where we all hung our jackets and coats AND where Mr. Traylor kept his paddle (a cruel looking piece of wood with holes drilled in the middle so that he could swing it faster). I cringed at the thought of what was going to happen next.
Everyone in class strained to hear what was being said behind the closed door or at least hear the “whack” off the paddle. Several moments passed without a sound of any kind passing through the thin walls. Then suddenly, Mr. Traylor and the student exited the room. The new kid resumed his seat behind me as Mr. Traylor proceeded to the front of the room.
All of us had our eyes glued on the most feared teacher in the school as he turned to face us.
“Students,” he said, “the newest member of our class, Master Jennings, chose not to recite the pledge because the religion that his family practices forbids it. While I might disagree with that position, I fought for his right to practice it.”
That was it. That’s all he said or ever said about it. It made an impression on me and a memory that I’ve never forgotten.