Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cheshire Cat

I opened an Easter card from my aunt and uncle and was confronted with a yellowed clipping from the June 27, 1970 Mirror-Spectator with the headline: "Coveted Award to Denise James." It had been a while since 1970, and the 'coveted award' didn't jump to mind until I read that it was The Eisenhower Award for Citizenship. Each high-school graduation featured the girl and boy voted by the entire student body and faculty to “best exemplify high standards of citizenship and the American Way.”

When my name was called, I was quite surprised. I had expected the girl sitting next to me to win; I had voted for her. Debbi Tonnessen was a perky, ever-positive, bubbly kid who was a candy-striper at the local hospital and was forever cheering people up. I thought she deserved the award. We were sitting next to one another because all the seating was done by height and she and I shared the misfortune of being short and solid.
Not my high school but certainly reminiscent!
 Credit:Eric Crump/Marshall Democrat-News  

Debbi nudged me a few times amid the thunderous applause. "Get up," she insisted, "Get up! They called your name!" I looked at her blankly but then rose and made my way to the podium, garbed in cap and gown and smiling at the irony of it all. It was just one of those high-school things.

Earlier in the year, I had been called down to my gym teacher's office, Miss Lankenau (lank-ken-NOW). Miss Lankenau (Teachers were called "Miss" and "Mrs." back then.) was also the coach of my Varsity Cheerleading Squad. It was odd to be called out of class to go down to the gym, and when I got there, she looked kind of uncomfortable.

"What is it, Miss Lankenau? What's wrong?"

"Well," she said slowly, "I've been asked to speak to you about a problem we have."

"What's that?"

"The office has noticed that during assemblies you aren't saying the pledge of allegiance. That concerns some of the staff"

"Because you're not setting a good example, because as a cheerleader

"Not setting a good example!" I exploded, "How is not saying the pledge of allegiance, not setting a good example???" I was fuming inside.

"Well, people feel that you're not being patriot..." From the way she said, 'people' I felt clearly she wasn't one of those 'people.'

I can't believe you're talking to me about this! If anything I'm being MORE patriotic! I actually thought this over and realized that I didn't agree with saying the pledge-of-allegiance! "

She pushed back in her chair and relaxed while I fumed. 
"Why don't you tell me why you don't want to say it?" 

"Well, I don't know much about this war in Viet Nam and I certainly don't read the papers enough, but it seems to me that it's kinda weird that we're in a war that no one's declared. I mean, kids are going to fight in a war that not everyone feels we should be fighting. Leslie Herndon's brother is there and he doesn't even know WHY! I just felt that saying the pledge was saying that I agree with and whole-heartedly support everything my country is doing, and right now, I don't feel that way. I don't feel the government is doing the right thing."

"You should know this stand may cause you some problems..." she trailed off.

"What stand? What problems?"

"Well, you're a member of the Varsity cheerleaders and the Girls' Varsity Club." 

"Well what's that got to do with this?" I asked confused.

"Some people feel you may not deserve to be on the squad if you continue to act this way."

"I can't believe this. I can't BELIEVE this!  So I take this seriously and DON'T say the pledge because I don't want to be BLINDLY following along and I get in trouble for it?  Isn't that what the Pledge of allegiance is all about?  Am I not living in a free country??" It took me a moment to let the steam escape.

I exhaled slowly and looked her in the eye.  "Listen, Miss Lankenau, you do what you have to do. If they want to kick me off the cheerleading squad for this, let them. I'm not changing my mind. I stand when the pledge is being said and I'm perfectly respectful, but it's my business whether I say the words or not. And if that's a problem, then it's somebody else's problem

My flurry seemed to leave her with not much to say. And though I was outwardly upset, inside I felt a sudden calm.

"Why don't you go back to class now and we'll see what happens." 

"Should I come to practice today?"

"Yes, come to practice. I'll see you later."

As I left her office and headed down the hall, on some level I knew she felt I was right.

When I returned to class (classes had changed and someone had taken my stuff on to the next room for me) I was so beet-red in the face that notes kept getting passed to me to find out what was wrong. Needless to say, I lost no opportunity to vent my anger. Before long, it was throughout the halls and the subject of conversation around various lockers.

At practice that day, Miss Lankenau didn't say much, she just said not to worry about it and let's work on that new formation for the basketball game Friday night.

Cheshire Cat by Ron Glive 

It was never mentioned again, but there at the end of the year and the end of my high-school days, as I stepped up to the podium and shook hands with the principal, I took the Eisenhower Award for Citizenship in the crook of my arm and thought about the “exemplary standards of citizenship and the American Way.”  

I had this big grin spread all over my face.        


  1. I can relate to your story. As a high school cheerleader, I refused to bring a plunger and roll of toilet tissue to school to support a theme, "Flush Northern" Week. I thought Person High School had more class than that. I personally felt more of myself as better than a toilet bowl or a piece of tissue paper. My refusal to participate cost me a few games on the bench without my uniform. I didn't mind. I was and still am a cheerleader!

    1. Bravo and good for you DeeDee!

    2. LOVED the piece, and actually I remember the incident well! Please, please, please write more about your HS days--I love it!!!

    3. Thanks Nancy and your request just triggered a memory of two other "incidents" that I'll write about in future...

  2. Clinging to my religion and guns........... BobMarch 29, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    Well well well.....i remember you receiving the award and was very very proud of you. I am sure you know how i feel about the rest. Denise Denise Denise