Later, of course, you learned the real words, and you chuckled at your childish stupidity. You were nine, or maybe ten, but a mature ten. You thought it then, and you still think it now, even as your memories contradict it. And once, you got to lead the Pledge. You were in Student Council that year--a delegate in a glittery t-shirt, wispy hair escaping from the bun that your mom tried so hard to twist into a single unit--and every week, one Student Council member was the voice on the loudspeaker. It wasn’t about the words, though, even though they were more than syllables at that point. It was about the pride that came from knowing that all the voices in all the rooms were trying to match their mouth movements to yours. Really, it was a performance, and you were the star.
It wasn’t about America.
America never shimmered in between the folds of your brain as you articulated the words that weren’t just syllables any more but might as well have been. Instead, America was outside of you. It enveloped you but you never really realized it. It was your cocoon and your coffin and you were complacent.
Soon enough, you started seeing America. You saw America in the fumes choked out by buses that dragged across Twenty-third Street and you saw America in the office buildings with plants on their windowsills that blocked you from seeing the people inside. You saw America in the flashing billboards in Times Square that always switched commercials as soon as you looked up at them and you saw America in the parking lot outside your window that tore itself up and stacked its fragments into a hotel made up of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. And that’s when you realized that America was consummate but that it was nothing. America was the sum of the Pledge and the destruction, and when you added the two extremes, you got zero.
You knew that America was founded on the principle of liberty (liberty for straight, white men, at least)--that’s what you learned in seventh grade--but that year, your teacher was the opposite of gingerbread, more like a stapler chomping through crisp pages, but a stapler is useful to those pages because it unites them, while you realized that what use does gingerbread have anyway?
You’re writing this now, and you’re rereading what you’ve gotten down so far and thinking that this doesn’t look like how to love America. How to love America should be streaked with red and white and blue and be written like you’re shouting empowerment into a megaphone. It shouldn’t be casual acceptance that’s really a disguise for unawareness and suspiciousness of the solidity that the Pledge promises. But that’s where the critic peeking out of your ear is wrong. You love America because you hate the way America encased you in itself without informing you of its presence.
Because you love America by lamenting the interchangeable bags of white skin and false patriotism that are running for president in 2016. You love America by studying the loopholes in the Hazelwood Standard majority opinion and allowing a ribbon of criticism to spew from your throat. You love America by asking why has Silicon Valley been able to suffocate this country with bubble wrap, and why don’t we realize that there is gunpowder in our tea, and why are some people large and distorted like you’re seeing them through a curved magnifying glass but others are so small that we don’t notice that the sun is bouncing off the lens and frying them.
You abhor the Americans who drawl that our country is immaculate, even though their fingers wrap around guns that suck in all the life within fifty miles but that are still, somehow, symbols of freedom. Honestly, you’d rather be one of the lives that gets sucked into the gun than be associated with those who carry it. So really, you love the idea of America, rather than the radioactive, plastic paradise that the gun-toters claim is their homeland.
This is how to love America. Love America for what it could be rather than what it has become. Love America for the seedlings that are frozen, afraid to germinate, under soil that is the only barrier between them and the fire-blazing air. Love America for a quill that danced through ink and parchment two hundred and fifty years ago in hope for a country in which revolution was cultivated rather than stifled. This is how to love America.
This piece won a Gold Key in the 2016 Regional Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and a Gold Medal in the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.