I loved my high school years. God blessed me with many friends and two best friends. Within our student population, I had found my niche and basked in it. Life was good and my life of study, work, home and friends was filled with vitality, and I thrived on it. We were the speech and debate teams with a little dramatic acting thrown in. We were the school newspaper and the yearbook crew. We put on school assemblies and ran for office. We entered the service club speech contests, like the Lions’ Club and the Elks and Rotary Clubs. In short, we were a very active group. We spent weekends up and down California at various speech and debate events. We were all passionate about what we believed in. And we put our passion into action through the written and spoken word. So closely united, yet we were SO different from each other. Well, we lived in America where “freedom rings.”
Don was our Seventh Day Adventist. He just stood there when we saluted the flag. Mary was Jewish and asked us to teach her about our beliefs and customs and we learned about hers. Phil was our resident atheist. Sometimes he’d walk out of the room when we began talking about God. Sue was our Mormon who attended special religion classes early in the morning before school and sometimes after school, too. Joanne attended a non-denominational Christian church. I remember the day she cried while trying to explain the joy of believers to our resident atheist who kept shaking his head in disbelief. Joe was leaning toward the Buddhist tradition and his girl friend toward Hinduism. One of my Carmelite Sisters, Sister Mary Paul and I were the staunch Catholics, well…the only Catholics in the group. The Drama Club enlisted our services as nuns when they put on the play “Cradle Song.” Our well-respected and much-loved instructor was a Baptist elder and deacon. I guess you can tell from my description – so many years later – that we had bonded. We were a tightly-knit group, and we knew and loved it.
We were all Americans attending a public school in southern California and each of us was from such a different heritage. It was so amazing to just spend time together and learn more of each person’s culture and social mores. Later, we wove these interactions in to our speeches. We each grew SO much and we learned SO much during those years. Our special class of Speakers’ Workshop with its informal atmosphere was the perfect forum for us to reach beyond the known into the unknown. Simply and without fear, each of was free to be uniquely himself or herself. We respected each other and their personal religious beliefs and values.
From my own heritage, I learned that my Irish ancestors came from Ireland precisely for freedom of religion. My Jewish friends said the same thing. As did my other friends, who echoed the same historical family stories. And it was the truth. Most of the immigrants who came to the United States came for freedom and for many, dare I say most, of them it was for religious freedom.
Times were different then, weren’t they? So, this is my question. What happened? Why isn’t it that way anymore? When did we jettison plain old human respect? When did all this bullying in our schools begin and why? When did this terrible sarcasm enter the vocabulary of our children? Is our culture dehumanizing? And perhaps the most important question of all, when did living and practicing one’s faith in the public square get labeled as intolerance and bigotry?
Like trees, we need to stand fast in our rootedness – our values, our beliefs, and our heritage as Americans. Many people do not know the history of the United States and are not aware of the basic tenets of our constitution. How can we uphold and pass on the legacy of our treasured beliefs if we no longer know what they are? Much less die for them?
Memorial Day reminds us of the tenacity of principles, values, and convictions. The other day, at our Breath of Spring Luncheon, we were laughing and saying, “Oh, this salad is to die for.” Excuse me? What did you say? Oh no. Definitely no. No mere salad, as delicious as it may be, is something to “die for.” For our principles and values, our deeply-held religious heritage, yes, these are something to “die for.” And that is what Memorial Day reminds us of. We stop. We reflect. We remember. And then we hold high the torch of freedom, amidst the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
On Memorial Day, we purposefully look back. Yet, let us keep in mind the words of George Washington, We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly-bought experience.” Well said. Or the words of Abraham Lincoln who wrote, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Maybe it is because we haven’t suffered enough. Maybe it is because our nation, in a certain sense, is still historically young. Maybe it is because we are sliding the slippery slope of materialism, gaining velocity as we go down into a tepid mediocrity. Or could it be that we are following the fate of the other nations who first ascended and then after 200 years declined into a tepid turpitude. Has America forgotten God, neglected Him, or purposely abandoned Him?
Our classrooms today are quite different from the one I described in the opening paragraphs. Just take a moment and think about what’s gone on, what’s going on, and what is already looming on the horizon. Never did I think that such a change would happen here. Never. Yet, each generation says – it won’t happen here. Not here. Not now.
Or would it?
So, I end with a question and I ask it seriously, “What WOULD you die for?”