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Saturday, Dec 10 2011 09:50 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Just words in a daily recitation

By The Bakersfield Californian

Ask any elementary school teacher about the many ways a kid can mangle the Pledge of Allegiance. It's pretty funny. "One nation under God" occasionally becomes "One Asian none are God" and "with liberty and justice for all" becomes "with liver tea and just us four all." I remember wondering whether indivisibility was anything like invisibility, which was at least a concept a comic book-loving kid could comprehend. Maybe some of my fellow fourth-graders fully grasped the fact that they were promising to be faithful to the founding principles of their country, but I believe the true weight of the Pledge only slowly dawned on most of us.

Now, imagine trying to figure out what exactly it was you were promising if you were speaking in a language you were still attempting to master.

That's what most of the students in the Lamont School District are probably faced with. The Kern County farming town is 97 percent Hispanic, and the student population reflects that.

In 2002, district officials came to the eminently logical conclusion that most of their students might not understand what they were committing themselves to when they offered the Pledge at the start of every school day. So the district made it standard practice for the students to say the Pledge in both English and Spanish every morning.

Last week this double recitation somehow became a controversy. KGET-TV reported Friday that "some teachers aren't happy about it." Neither were viewers, if the station's admittedly unscientific poll was any indication. The vast majority agreed that Lamont kids should be pledging in English only. Comments posed on the station website supported that. "If you can't teach it in English don't teach it," wrote one. "You disrespect the United States."

Most of us can agree that immigrants ought to be working toward assimilation in at least two important facets: patriotic and linguistic. They ought to have an appreciation for the way of life their Americanness offers. And they ought to be able to express that appreciation in the language that allows them to best assimilate in their daily lives: English. But one can't appreciate the rights and obligations of being an American if it's explained in an unfamiliar tongue. That's why it's important that the Pledge be expressed in a way that has meaning to the speaker -- otherwise it's just a string of random syllables one utters before one takes a seat. Repeating the Pledge in both languages achieves both goals -- it builds a foundation for the understanding of concepts, and it provides one more simple, daily English lesson.

The irony here is that many critics of Lamont's two-language Pledge were undoubtedly also irate over a widely documented immigration protest at Montebello High School in 2006, in which demonstrators were photographed waving a Mexican flag alongside an upside-down American flag. These were people who wanted, in some sense, to literally become Americans? Really?

And yet here, in Lamont, we have children pledging their allegiance in a way they can grasp, in a ritual of patriotic commitment carried out by virtually all other American children. But that's not good enough: Kern County demands conformity over comprehension, or what passes for comprehension at that age.

Sometimes we Americans have trouble living up to the ideals of Americanness. I'm thinking, in this case, of that word from the Pledge: Indivisible. Too often we are all too divisible, all too willing and even eager to separate ourselves into political and cultural encampments. I'm afraid some of us would be happier if my fourth-grade Pledge confusion was their reality and certain people were simply invisible.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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