Every school music teacher in America has wrestled with the national anthem. Hard to sing (covering an octave and a fifth), written in an unfriendly key signature, lyrically confounding and attached to a disreputable tune, it nevertheless maintains a strange hold on public sentiment. We expect to hear it, for some hard to trace reason, every Friday night at football games, and a raft of other occasions. We expect citizens to show reverence for this music (although singing the words is considered optional, even embarrassing).
I’ve probably conducted the “Star-Spangled Banner” 500 times, and taught it, in some form or for some purpose, every one of my 31 years in the classroom. I don’t particularly like it--but it’s one of those “part of the job” music-teacher tasks that becomes habitual, boring, and then--on unexpected occasions-- moving.
I used to delight in telling my students that the “Star-Spangled Banner” tune is based on an 18th century, thoroughly British, drinking song: To Anacreon in Heaven. I sincerely hope whoever first set Francis Scott Key’s flowery, militaristic poetry to the theme song of an exclusive club of (heavy-drinking) English aristocrats had a great sense of irony. Proposing this weird hybrid as our patriotic anthem was an exercise in incongruity--and the ditty was around for more than one hundred years before being selected as our one and only official national song.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is grist for a fun set of lessons to teach kids: America as cross-cultural hub, the symbolism of music in extraordinary events, rabid nationalism, and an outdated glorification of war.
There are picture books about the creation of the original poem for younger children, depicting “brave” Key out in the harbor, tearing up as he saw the tattered banner waving. The assumption in all these tales is that “we” are always fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Because--you know--"we” Americans are always on the right side.
Even when we aren’t--or when the right side is hard to determine.
Most children in America are introduced to the Revolutionary War as “Americans” fighting to get out from under the heavy, tax-mad hand of the British. They’re seldom told about the large percentage of loyalists and the determinedly neutral who made up over half of the citizenry, the savage behaviors that accompanied the birthing of democracy. The party line in schools is give me liberty or give me death--even though the deadly squabbling over land boundaries and home rule and just who was a citizen lasted for more than a century. No wonder it took forever to pick a song.
I finished every lesson on the SSB by telling students that there are periodically attempts to change the national anthem, for excellent reasons. We would look at other possibilities, from “America the Beautiful” to “This Land is Your Land” (which young students invariably pick as the best replacement, especially knowing that Woody Guthrie encouraged singers to add their own verses). “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was stolen from the Queen (God save her), which has its own set of distasteful, violent, jingoistic words. “God Bless America” makes some folks uncomfortable, although it’s interesting to consider that when members of Congress gathered on 9/11, they spontaneously sang Irving Berlin’s classic, avoiding the bombs bursting in air.
And now, Colin Kaepernick has decided that he doesn’t want to be part of a mandated show of faux patriotism. He’s explained why, in simple but powerful language. He has the right--the freedom-- to sit down. And the talking heads have gone crazy, the elevation of form over substance.
I keep thinking about band directors and football coaches, trying to keep students engaged in healthy community activities. What happens when students refuse to take part in patriotic displays that have no meaning? Actually--this kind of thing happens fairly frequently: the student who refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag, or the child whose parents pull her out of the Valentine’s Day party.
Sometimes, teachers gossip in the lounge, expressing pity for kids whose parents have non-standard beliefs or practices. But in my experience, students whose families are out of the mainstream often have tighter family bonds and strong support for academic achievement. Smart school leaders honor students’ and families’ beliefs, as long as they’re not harmful. It’s better to stand for something.
I am intrigued by the articles (here, and here, for example) dissecting the national anthem and Kaepernick’s response. Each time I see another discussion--even heated comments-- about what it means to revere the flag, I think: Good. This will give American citizens and, one hopes, students, something to study and pick apart--our deeply racist history, our national values. Our right of free expression. Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Mary Beth Tinker.
Something as symbolic as a national anthem (think about the political and religious import in that designation) deserves scrutiny. Something as critical to human communities as patriotism deserves careful thought.
Let the conversations roll.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.