A personal reminiscence by our regular contributor Francis Russell
There I am in corduroy knickerbockers and black cotton stockings, standing beside my desk at attention in Miss Sykes’sThird Grade room of the Martha A. Baker School in Mattapan. The time is the last month or so of the War that is going to End All Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy. Our boys Over There—spearheaded by the Yankee Division—are punching holes in the Hindenburg Line. The Huns are running in terror; the Beast of Berlin and the Clown Prince are trembling in their shiny spurred boots. We are pledging allegiance. Most of us wear lozengeshaped Junior Red Cross buttons, though I, in a subsequently regretted surge of affection, gave mine to Marion Henries. Miss Sykes, for all her patriotic fervor, insists on the decencies. Edwin McDonald is not allowed to wear his Celluloid pin that reads “To H-LL with Kaiser Bill.”
Looking back over a half century to that Third Grade room with its mud-colored walls, relieved only by W. Strutt’s framed sepia picture, And a Little Child Shall Lead Them , I find myself caught up in a triple memory of Miss Sykes—blowing the pitch for us on her harmonica; walking up and down with a minatory ruler, while our pens traced the curlicued inanities of the Palmer Method; above all, leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The pledge was new to Boston that September, as was the silk flag that hung to the right of Miss Sykes’s desk- symbols that the School Committee, in a burst of patriotism, had just adopted. Our day began with Miss Sykes’s unconstitutional reading of the Bible. Then we stood at attention facing the flag, as did Miss Sykes. “I,” she exclaimed loudly, and paused. We raised our right hands to our foreheads, fingers and thumbs extended stiffly, while our left hands were pressed with equal stiffness to our sides.
“I pledge allegiance to my flag …”
At the word “flag” our hands shot forward in what Mussolini would shortly define as the “Roman salute” and Hitler, somewhat belatedly, as the “German greeting.”
“… one nation, intervisible with liberty and justice, for all.”
Woé to anyone who in that solemn moment was chewing gum! Miss Sykes pounced on him like a terrier on a rat. In the days when small boys still wore collar buttons, her shakings left a semipermanent indentation in the throat.