Much has recently been made of NFL players protesting social injustice during the National Anthem. Every talking head on TV seems to have an opinion, and I love listening to and considering their positions. But few things kill credibility quicker than name calling or hatred. If insults are necessary to add validity to our message, we don’t have much of a message, I’m afraid. The most compelling argument becomes impossible to see when shrouded in an impenetrable fog of contempt. What a shame. Colin Kaepernick sat, and the world hurled insults. Even my two Twitter followers were subjected to an angry, knee-jerk reaction to Kaepernick’s disrespect. Hopefully, we have all calmed down a bit, including me.

On a much, much smaller scale (but on a much more personal level), I encountered a similar situation in a Beech High School classroom several years ago. Like every public school in Tennessee, we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence. Year after year, everybody respected both practices (or at least faked respect because they didn’t have the courage to do otherwise). Until one day when not everybody did.

It was the beginning of a new semester, and I had never met the young man in my class–my personal Colin Kaepernick–who chose to remain seated that cold January morning when the voice of Coach Joines echoed through the Beech hallways: “Please stand for the Pledge.” Like little soldiers, every other student in Room V5 stood, placed a hand over the heart, and began that day like any other day of their school existence–“I pledge allegiance to the flag….” A few students noticed “Colin” sitting during the pledge. The look on their faces led me to believe that they were prepared to offer the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the kid had a rough morning. Perhaps he was tired. Maybe something else was wrong. High school kids are much better people than society would have us believe.

Most of my juniors and seniors seemed to respect whatever message Colin was trying to send, if only for the first two or three days he remained seated. Sensing a learning opportunity, I decided to play the role of spectator and nothing more. About the fourth day Colin remained seated, another young man got an idea and decided to assert his First Amendment rights. The Pledge started as usual that day, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” Then things got interesting. “…and to the Republic for which it STANDS!!!” I don’t recall making it to the “one nation under God” part that day, but I do remember how quiet the room became when everyone realized what had happened. Somebody had found the courage to address what he considered to be disrespect of our flag. From this teenage patriot’s perspective, shouting “STANDS!!” seemed like a reasonable way to express his opinion about Colin’s refusal to, well, STAND.

Like any good teacher, my reaction hinged on what happened next. Absolutely nothing happened next. Neither angry words nor mean looks were exchanged, so I got busy doing what I did, teaching Accounting. At least we could all agree on the importance of debits and credits, right? Crisis averted. I must admit, however, I was secretly looking forward to what would happen the next day. Would Colin remain seated? Would The Patriot again yell STAND!!?

My entire class expressed their thoughts the next morning by yelling STANDS!, and Colin remained seated, more defiant than ever. I decided to give students one more day to resolve the conflict without my involvement. As I saw it, both sides were civil (at least by teenage standards) in their approach to the disagreement, so why not give everybody the opportunity to express themselves? To Colin’s credit, he remained resolute. To this day, I admire that about him. I completely disagreed with what I still consider to be his lack of respect for our nation and those who have fought to protect it, but the idealistic part of me LOVED the freedom he had to sit. So, that’s how I approached the matter when I finally stepped into the conflict. The initial benefit-of-the-doubt looks had turned into looks of, “Mr. Duncan, why don’t you make this disrespectful kid stand?” Kids don’t understand that forced allegiance is no allegiance at all.

After declining my offer to explain the rationale behind his protest, Colin’s popularity rating hit an all time low. He was quickly becoming a rebel without a cause among his classmates, and he was rebelling against a practice most of them believed to be sacred. Some of them were approaching livid. I felt compelled to bail this kid out, so I said what was on my heart. “Colin,” I began, “The irony in your actions is that by sitting during the Pledge, you are actually affirming everything that flag represents.” He gave me a confused look.  I rephrased, “The flag you are protesting represents the very nation that gives you your right to protest.” Click. He got it. I could see it on his face. The class collectively exhaled, relieved that I had at least addressed the behavior.

Colin willingly stood for the pledge in my class the next day and every day after that. Isn’t it interesting that a chorus of loud and angry disagreement did nothing to change Colin’s mind about our flag and our country? The louder his classmates yelled, the more anchored to that chair he became. In their defense, my students honestly believed that a corporate rebuke was the only solution to the disrespect they had observed. They attempted to right what they were convinced was wrong. I applaud them for their efforts. I also applaud Colin for having the courage to buck conventional wisdom. I don’t agree with the method he chose to protest whatever he was unable to verbalize that day. But I absolutely respect his right to do so. At least in theory, our freedoms of speech and expression are not dependent upon the popularity of our message. Asserting my First Amendment rights requires me to defend Colin’s.

Should the real Colin Kaepernick continue to sit, anger won’t make him stand. Even if it would, forced allegiance is no allegiance at all. The actions of Kaepernick and others like him affirm the very freedom my flag affords them. Thanks to this season of home-grown disrespect toward America, the world is now regularly reminded how truly unique our awesome country remains, with or without the gratitude of its own citizens. Here is what I find so cool–It is absolutely impossible for a U.S. citizen to disrespect the American flag without unwittingly affirming the greatness of America. I believe these recent protests by athletes are disrespectful and misguided, but I will defend the protestors’ rights to express themselves. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not my support is reciprocated when I hold an unpopular view…and choose to express it publicly.

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