America Is…

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I was clearing out files on my computer today and came across the following reflection, originally written in September 2010, but never published. Note that like many of my posts, this one intends to frame a conversation in a positive way, beginning us in a place of gratitude and moving us forward from there …. here goes… 

flagAmerica Is…

I am never one to comment on politics. I steer clear of the rhetoric, excuse myself from party conversations, and am shy to interject my opinion in the political arena. However, I recently had the opportunity to visit an elementary school where I talked to a group of third grade students about their perceptions of our country. Related to the anniversary of September 11 events, these bright and astute students had just finished reading a book called “America Is.”

“America Is” is a patriotic picture book by Louise Borden. Each of the book’s pages focuses on a defining aspect of our nation, covering topics from the flag to our country’s ethnic diversity. If read deeply (and yes, you can do that with a picture book), it prompts the reader to ask, “What does America mean to me?”. And that is exactly the question this group of eight-year-old’s pondered. After careful reflection, they recorded their answers on colored pieces of paper that formed a flag on the wall of their school. Their answers were sweet and funny and surprisingly insightful. They prompted me to also ask myself…”What IS America?”.

If you are now also attempting to form a definition of our nation, allow me to share some of the responses that came from a third grade classroom:

“America means joy to me.” When I asked the young author of this sentence what he meant by “joy,” his response was: “You know … video games, TV, scooters and bikes.” This prompted me to ask him if he had a scooter or a bike. His response? “Both.” Duh.

Another student wrote: “America is a country full of nice people.” When asked if she knew a lot of nice people, she quickly answered yes and told me that many of them were right there in her school. The smile on her face told me more than any of her words.

“America is a free country,” wrote another student. “I wrote that,” he said, “because America is a peaceful place. People fight so we can have a free country.” The dichotomy of his sentiment is thought-provoking all on its own.

There were a number of other student responses. Many of them recorded gratitude for the opportunities that exist in this country. For these third grade students, those opportunities translate into things like sports, travel, and being able to play outside with their friends. (I also acknowledge that there are many, many people in this country whose needs are much more serious.)

Of all the responses on this day, however, one struck me the most.  Before I share it, I ask you to remember that these are the responses of third graders…students who are eight years old.

One student, who was Indian, wrote, “America means freedom to me.” When I encouraged him to explain his response in more detail, the child said simply, “religious freedom.” He was somber and serious and then told me that while he was permitted to practice his religion freely in this country, the same had not always been true for his parents in India. “They could not express themselves and their faith without fear,” he told me. “Now, in America, we can.”

This boy is eight years old. And yet, he knows the crippling affect of fear; the impact fear makes on being able to truly express who you are. And he knows a freedom from that fear. Deep stuff for a third grader.

So the point in my sharing this story is not to cause arguments that are either right wing or left wing. It is not to spark a political conversation at all. Instead, I hope readers will take just a minute to think more intently on “What America IS.” While it seems easy for us to focus so often on what America isn’t these days – how it is failing us in one way or another – what we can learn from a classroom full of third graders may just do more for us than any news report. Their optimistic and honest answers paint a picture of a country where there is joy, and nice people, and freedom. With that freedom comes a responsibility. Together we are charged with defining what America IS…and certainly what we want it to be. Do we have room to improve, to better serve the needs of all our people? No doubt. I just suggest that if we begin framing the conversation in a more positive way, it may serve us all well.

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