Columnist Bob Kerr: It's about showing respect for flag
01:00 AM EDT on Friday, May 15, 2009
There are people I know who can't ignore a disrespected flag. They will see one dragging on the ground or badly ripped or flying at night without illumination. And they will find out who's responsible and point out the violation of flag etiquette and sometimes bring a new flag to replace the old.
The flag - Old Glory - is too often treated with shabby disregard. It is left in a tangled heap or allowed to drag on the floor. It is raised again and again despite a tattered condition that dictates it be destroyed. And few people take notice. Few people know how the cloth that holds our history in its folds should be handled.
But they do know at a school in West Warwick. You can walk in the main entrance of Greenbush Elementary at the end of classes in the afternoon and see students treating the flag as it's supposed to be treated. They treat it as it's treated at veterans' graves and on ships and military bases all over the world.
"You can't just rush through it," says Zachary Staten, a third grader. "Getting the triangles right, that's the toughest part."
He is holding the red-and-white striped end of the flag. Brooke Coburn, another third grader, is holding the end with the white stars on the field of blue.
It is a big flag, but Staten and Coburn slowly, carefully fold it as a very old tradition dictates. They fold it twice lengthwise, then Staten begins the triangular folds, working his way toward Coburn. They smooth the edges as they work. When they are done, they hold a tight triangle of white stars on blue that is carried to the school office.
They and dozens of other students at Greenbush observe the tradition because Elaine Smith thinks it's important.
"I like to teach things in my classroom that are not necessarily academic," says Smith, a fourth-grade teacher.
So she teaches the flag and its traditions. It becomes a history lesson and a lesson about respect.
It has a lot to do with her sons, Tyler and Owen. When you have two sons in the Marine Corps, the country's symbols take on much greater significance.
Tyler Smith is in Bahrain. He did a tour in Iraq last year. Owen left Thursday with a Marine expeditionary force that will eventually take him to Afghanistan.
"I have mixed feelings," says Smith, "but I'm proud. At this turbulent time in our world they wanted to do this."
She notices things others might not. She noticed the flag at the school was being casually tossed aside. She saw it on a chair, once in a recycling bin.
She asked colleagues for help. She did some research and learned about the small traditions in those 13 traditional folds.
More than 100 students have learned to fold the flag at Greenbush. It is probably best to leave it to them to say what it means:
"I like folding the flag because it's fun and it stands for freedom" - Nick Podgurski.
"I learned how to fold the flag a special way and once you learn you keep it perfect" - Emily Smith.
"You don't let it touch the ground. That would be disrespectful to our country" - Journey Hyatt.
"It's cool. It's much better than what they used to do" - Robert Gadoury.
"It's hard to try to make it into a triangle, getting the edges right" - Hayley Clark.
Now, the students who have learned how to fold the flag teach other students.
"The kids do a nice job and they feel good about it," says Elaine Smith. "It's a small thing, but it's become bigger than I imagined."