Brandt Dahl wasn't exactly aiming for the Student of the Year Award when he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance last week at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High near Moorhead. But I suspect the eighth-grader may have had a little more swagger in his step after publicly setting school administrators there back on their heels.
If Brandt's infraction had been a smart-alecky spitball, his one-day, in-school suspension -- one of four meted out to errant students -- might not have been viewed in some quarters as Dilworth's equivalent of Abu Ghraib. But in recent decades, the slightest school pressure to honor our flag has inspired a rescue mission from a legal heavyweight -- the ACLU.
Last week, the ACLU of Minnesota demanded that the district cease and desist from requiring students to stand during the pledge -- students have not been required to recite it -- and warned that the district could be liable for attorney's fees and costs.
The MCLU informed school officials that "staff involved in violating students' rights should face discipline." It also recommended "remedial steps," including a potential formal apology to the disciplined students.
Needless to say, district administrators apparently are moving to modify the policy "to address the protection of the individual's form of expression," in the words of the junior high's principal, Colleen Houglum.
Don't get me wrong. MCLU executive director Chuck Samuelson and his legal crew generally know their stuff, and I presume that they're right about the law on this one.
Why did he do it?
But Kim Dahl, Brandt's mom, discovered a revealing fact when she asked her son why he refused to stand. He had no answer, she told the Star Tribune, adding "he's just a normal 13-year-old."
She probably is right. Thirteen-year-olds typically like nothing better than to grab the limelight and thumb their noses at authority.
In his letter, Samuelson had some advice for chastened Dilworth school administrators: "This issue represents a classic 'teachable moment' where the school can help to instill the values of good citizenship by modeling respect for the U.S. Constitution and the rights and values that our flag represents."
A jab at administrators
I suspect, however, that some Dilworth students may learn a different lesson from their buddies' flirtation with "rights" and the ACLU.
Civics? Constitutional law? More likely, these kids will see that school administrators -- the bane of a 13-year-old's existence -- can be brought to heel, and that it feels awfully darn good.
For many Dilworth students, the incident may reinforce a message that our "me first" culture peddles constantly. It's this: You -- and your whims and desires -- are the center of the universe. Life is about "asserting" and "expressing" yourself, with no need to consult others' wishes or think about anything larger than yourself.
Who will teach our kids another, far less appealing lesson? It's this: You have rights, but you also have responsibilities. These include controlling your desires, being courteous to others and respecting authority. The law does not compel you to pledge allegiance to the American flag or to stand while others do. But simple respect should prompt you to honor those who bled and died for that flag, so that kids like you can sit in an eighth-grade class in Dilworth in the freest and most prosperous nation in history.
Fewer and fewer adults try to teach such lessons these days. But kids need to learn them if our democracy is to continue to flourish.
Today the idea that individual rights trump every other consideration dominates our public square. With its one-dimensional focus, such "rights talk" impoverishes our conversation about what good citizenship requires, and what kind of society we want to be.
'Rights talk' wasn't enough
Kim Dahl wasn't satisfied with "rights talk." In a letter to the Star Tribune on Tuesday, she described how she and her son had "a very thoughtful conversation about why people stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem." Now that Brandt understands this, he has decided to stand for the pledge.
Here's what I suggest for the kids of Dilworth junior high, so they too can understand. After school officials issue their ACLU-mandated apology, take out a book and read about the shoeless Revolutionary War soldiers who endured a frigid Valley Forge winter to fight for the American flag -- and for your freedom. Then invite in some veterans to tell you what they did for that flag on Omaha Beach or at the Battle of the Bulge.
Let the lesson sink in
Follow up with a visit from some students' grandparents, who can talk about the sacrifices they've made to keep the family farm going. Finally, listen to some parents who can describe what it's like to work two jobs so they can put something by for your college education.
You, students of Dilworth, are the fortunate recipients of these gifts, and the heirs of America's experiment in ordered liberty.
What are you going to contribute to keep it going?