Friday, May 16, 2014

Patriot or Globalist: Can You Be Both?

Last week’s Tire Swing e-newsletter featured an article about our fourth and fifth graders’ study of human rights, which culminates in a public Exhibition Monday evening. The visual that accompanied the article (see below) displayed the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which lists the rights that all humans should have, regardless of nationality. Some examples: the Right to Equal Representation, the Right to Belong to a Religion, the Right to Education. Pretty hard to take issue with these, right?

After emailing the newsletter, I received a reply from a recipient outside of the school: “My goodness. What happened to the Bill of Rights? Is that taught anymore?” It's a fair question. I believe it's imperative that our students learn about the governmental system we created and appreciate the national ideals we hold dear.

Quite by chance, I ran into the recipient of the email that very evening. After exchanging greetings, I thanked him/her (trying to protect his/her right to privacy) for the email and the question. I went on to explain that we study the Bill of Rights and the U.S. government extensively in third grade and again in middle years.

I like to think that nothing much surprises me anymore, but I was taken aback at the reply I received: “Well, that article scared me. I mean SCARED me.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to that gracefully, so I said something like “Don’t be scared,” using a patronizing tone like one might use with a very small child. What I should have said was, “Fear, specifically the eradication thereof, is the reason we have students go through such learning experiences.” I should have said that people learn empathy and understanding by breaking out of their comfort zone, by working to become less ignorant about others, by learning to question their own assumptions and judgments. I should have taken the moment to help him/her understand that there are universal, global truths that transcend borders and languages. I’m sure that person would have taken me by the hand and tearfully thanked me for helping him/her see the light.

At the risk of being too judgmental myself, my mind extrapolated what I thought might be that person’s deeper message. A continued dialogue might have led him/her to point out that patriotism is more important than globalism. That we should be teaching students the Bill of Rights instead of (as opposed to alongside of) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That the investigation and appreciation of different cultures, customs, and ways of life erodes the foundation of our own rights as citizens of the United States.

Whether my interpretation of the exchange was accurate or not or somewhere in between, it did set me to thinking about the supposed mutual exclusivity that some folks feel about valuing the world and valuing our nation. I reject such a notion. I value being a citizen of the United States. I love the freedoms I have grown up with, and I know that they have come at the sacrifice of a great many people. When I meet elected officials—regardless of political party--I thank them for their service to our country. When I meet a veteran or see a man or woman in uniform, I feel and typically express a deep and abiding gratitude for their service.

I love our country; I also love our world. I believe, and I think we should help our children to believe, that there are inalienable rights for all people everywhere. We enjoy many of those rights here in the United States, while people in other nations do not. It serves our country, our citizens, and our children to work toward a more just world in which human beings are unfettered from fear. As Dr. Martin Luther King put it so perfectly, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I will close with an experience I will never forget— one that brought globalism and patriotism together in an indelible and profound way for me. Before the winter holidays, I attended an open house at the Fugees Academy in Clarkston, Georgia. The academy is a unique tuition-free independent school where young adolescents, refugees from war-torn countries around the world, learn to become good students, good soccer players, good citizens, and good people. Most of these young people have witnessed atrocities that we cannot imagine. They have lived among war, poverty, and violence. They know personally what it is like to have their rights as humans denied. Relocated to the United States, these young men and women learn to navigate a strange society that is often skeptical and fearful of who they are. But they are strengthened by the love and support of each other, their teachers, and the belief that life will be more just and joyful here in the U.S.

At the conclusion of the open house, the students presented a wonderful concert of traditional American holiday songs. But before they sang of sleigh bells and snow, they led the audience in the most rousing, beautiful version of the Star-Spangled Banner I have ever heard. As the words “land of the free and the home of the brave” resounded throughout the room, I noticed that some of the students had tears in their eyes. I did too. Such is the power of being freely offered the rights you have been denied all your life by a country that is new and precious—and sometimes scary.

I wonder what the author of that email would have felt watching these young people—citizens of a world in search of human dignity—as they visibly expressed their gratitude for living in a nation that grants many critical rights in its own Constitution. I think he/she would have felt as proud and deeply moved as did every person in that room.

Now that's true patriotism.