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April 6, 2013

Stepping on the flag, and other memories

By Emily F. Popek
The Daily Star

---- — If we are to be defined all our lives by our high school mascots, then I suppose I am a Viking. But I’m also a Panther, having transferred schools after my freshman year. 

You could imagine that it was convenient that the school colors at both institutions were the same: red, black and white. But the truth was, it didn’t matter to me a bit.

So if you were to tell me that the North Salem Vikings were going to change their name to the North Salem Fighting Banana Slugs or the North Salem Scarlet Pimpernels, my reaction would be on the level of a raised eyebrow.

There are a couple of reasons for this, the first and most obvious being that I pretty much hated high school. My alma mater was distinguished among the five public schools in the city as being the one with the lowest academic performance and the highest level of disciplinary problems. And this was the school I chose to attend. My previous school was even worse.

But even if I had felt any warm feelings toward the institution of North Salem High, I still don’t know if I ever would have caught on to that elusive thing called “school spirit.”

I was confounded by my first pep rally as a freshman in high school. Rather than being exciting, the gymnasium full of screaming kids was terrifying to me. And try as I might, I couldn’t seem to feel what everyone else was feeling. The sight of someone parading around in a Viking (or Panther) costume didn’t inspire me to any feelings of … I don’t even know what I was supposed to be feeling. I guess some sort of anticipatory pride at whatever sporting feat was about to take place.

I realize that last sentence makes me sound like an alien from another world, one who has only the most rudimentary understanding of American culture. And believe me, that’s how I felt at times. I’m not sure how I got to be this way. But I seem to lack some fundamental gene or brain cell — the one that makes you scream at a pep rally or shed a tear over the playing of the national anthem.

In elementary school, we were taught flag etiquette — how to properly raise, display and lower the flag, how to fold it, and how to dispose of it when it had become too worn. Each morning, two of us were sent out to put the state and U.S. flags up on the flagpole in front of the school building.

We were sternly ordered to be respectful of the flags and to ensure that they never touched the ground. But when I asked why, I never really got a satisfactory answer. I was left with the impression that there was some alchemy that would result if the fabric of the flag were to touch the ground. I thought the teacher would know immediately that the magical flag had been sullied, and would sense that it needed to be replaced.

So I did what any kid would go, and conducted a little scientific experiment. When it was my turn to take the flag out, I tossed it onto the grass and let it sit there for a minute before putting it onto the flagpole. Nothing happened. The teacher didn’t notice anything, and the flag continued to go up and come back down every day as it always had.

Of course, as I got older, I understood that there is no magic about the flag, but that the rules governing its display and storage are intended to convey respect. But much as I can understand that on a rational level, there is still that 7-year-old kid inside me who wants to take the flag and throw it on the ground just to see what will happen.

I’d like to think that we could burn the flag, or turn the North Salem Vikings into the North Salem Scarlet Pimpernels, without putting the things we value at any great risk. That flag that I let touch the ground still flew over Oak Grove Elementary for many more years before it was retired, and no one (except poor Annie Joliffe, who I think was so scandalized that she didn’t dare tell anyone) was the wiser. And the students at North would, I think, play just as hard on the football field in different colored uniforms.

I wonder if, as meaningful and as important as these symbols are, we sometimes let them get in the way of the things that really matter. It’s easy to teach kids flag etiquette. But if you can answer their question of “Why?”, that may be the more meaningful lesson

EMILY F. POPEK is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at