Other Writings

Eighth Grade Graduation- 1954

 I am one of the inmates at P.S. 95 on Governor Avenue in the northwest Bronx.  Our teachers are principally frustrated and tenured nuns who missed the chance to wear the habit.  Maybe they’re closet drunks.  Whatever they are, they are totalitarians.  But they like me.
       There are weekly school assemblies at P.S. 95 at which all of the upper grade students and the teachers gather in the school auditorium to see and hear some sort of presentation, music or art appreciation usually.  It is the high point of the school community’s week.  
       The P.S. 95 auditorium is situated on the ground floor of our school building, which is built on a hill, so that the auditorium is pitched downward toward a five-foot high raised stage and platform.  At the left front corner of the auditorium is a baby grand piano.  Above the piano, at the corner of the stage, resting in a massive stand bolted to the stage flooring is a huge American flag with a large brass eagle adorning the top of its flagpole.
       Every boy who attends P.S. 95 is required to wear a white shirt and tie on assembly day.  Every girl wears a skirt and white blouse, which every boy tries to see through.  All students uniformly look forward to assembly day as a break from classroom routine.  Every assembly begins with the pledge of allegiance to our flag “and to the republic for which it stands.”  An honor guard, comprising five boys and four girls, waits outside the auditorium as each class silently files into the auditorium to take their assigned seats in their assigned rows.  The filing into the auditorium is silent and orderly.  Boys sit on the left side of the auditorium facing the stage, girls on the right.  After every student is properly seated and the auditorium absolutely still a teacher says, “We will now all rise to honor our flag.”  The audience then stands amidst a raucous clacking of folding seats springing back to attention and the honor guard, led by the senior student who has been selected as flag bearer, accompanied by appropriate marching music from the grand piano, then marches down the center aisle of the auditorium.  The flag bearer carries over his right shoulder a small American flag that is stored in a closet outside the auditorium.  When the honor guard reaches the front of the auditorium stage it parts into two separate files, every other student in line turning either left or right.  Because the procession has alternated boy girl boy girl marching down the aisle, when the honor guard separates and marches to the sides of the stage and up the five or six steps onto the stage itself the boys in the honor guard have all lined up on the right side of the stage facing the audience, the girls have all lined up to the left of the stage facing the audience.
       After the honor guard has lined up across the front of the stage the flag bearer steps one step forward to the edge of the stage.  A teacher calls out, “Present arms.”  The flag bearer lowers the flag he has been carrying upright and vertical over his shoulder to present the colors.  The flag is held in the flag bearer’s right hand, his right arm fully extended, the flag pole at a sixty degree angle to the floor, the stars and stripes unfurled fully before the assembly, the end of the flagpole supported in a leather cup which hangs on a leather thong around the flag bearer’s neck.  The flag’s edge hangs about a foot from the floor of the center aisle of the auditorium.  The assembly recites the Pledge of Allegiance.  Ms. Bailey strikes a chord on the piano and the assembly sings the Star Spangled Banner.  The honor guard stands still and at attention.  At the end of the national anthem the flag bearer raises the flag and steps back into line with the honor guard.  He turns crisply and marches off stage, walking past the huge American flag with the large brass eagle adorning the top of the flagpole that lives on stage, down the stairs, and back up the center aisle of the auditorium.  The other honorees follow as they march out the doors at the rear of the assembly, where the flag bearer ceremoniously replaces the marching flag in the closet used for its storage and then he, with the remainder of the color guard, rejoin their classmates.
       I am the student who bears the flag at assembly in my eighth grade senior year.  I do not know how, why, or by whom I have been chosen for this duty and privilege, but I am honored and pleased by the distinction.  
Soon after the Memorial Day holiday in 1954 our class begins rehearsals for the graduation assembly to be held later in June.  In the graduation assembly we are told the flag presentation ceremony will have two alterations.  After the flag has been presented, after the Pledge of Allegiance has been said, and after the Star Spangled Banner has been sung, the graduating class will also sing “America the Beautiful,” after which the flag bearer will lift the flag, step back from the edge of the stage as usual, but will then turn to his left, and formally present the flag to the seventh grade student who will serve as the flag bearer of the honor guard next year.  The honor guard will then part into two files, march down the stairs, as is our custom, up the aisle, and then return quietly to the seats that have been left vacant for us so that we are arranged in perfect alphabetical order when called upon to receive our diplomas.
       On graduation day the energy at school is dramatically heightened.  Peeking through the doors leading into the auditorium I see my parents, and the parents of many of my friends who have filled the auditorium.  The rest of the graduating class marches silently to their seats.  Mr. Black, the science teacher, is standing outside the auditorium with the honor guard.  I see he is already holding a flag.  But it is not the regular flag I have carried at every assembly for a year, the flag I have practiced with in advance of graduation exercises, the flag I anticipated would be borne by me on graduation day for presentation to next year’s flag bearer.  Instead, without forewarning, the usual flag I carry has been replaced for graduation ceremony purposes by the huge American flag with a large brass eagle adorning the top of the flagpole that normally rests in the stand bolted to the assembly room stage above the grand piano.  I have not been alerted to this change.
       The processional music begins.  I march proudly down the aisle carrying the huge unfamiliar flag in two hands in an upright position.  I turn left at the edge of the stairs and march up the steps to center stage.  I step one step forward as prescribed.  Ms. Bailey says, “Present arms.”  I lower the flag with my right arm extended over the edge of the stage.  And as the audience begins to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I realize that this flag with the eagle on top of it weighs at least forty pounds more than the flag I am used to holding and that there is simply no way I will be able to keep my arm extended, the flag at a sixty degree angle, and the cloth edges of the flag off the forbidden floor for the next five or six minutes.  Indeed my arm is straining well before the Pledge is completed, “with liberty and justice for all.”
       A cord is struck.  “Oh say can you see,” is intoned.  I am straining tremendously.  I really cannot see how it will be possible for me to hold this position, to keep the flag off the floor during the singing of the National Anthem and America the Beautiful.  I catch my father’s eye.  He understands what is happening.  He pokes my mother in the ribs with his elbow.  She turns to look at him and he whispers.  She returns her gaze to the stage.  I am starting to waver.  My right arm is strained and shaking, “and the home of the brave,” is sung.  My mother’s mouth is open but no words are coming out.  
       Indeed, by the first chord of “America the Beautiful” everyone in the audience knows what is happening, and although they are all singing all of their mouths are hanging open longer between the words, and even the music has slowed down.  I see the clock on the rear wall of the auditorium.  I never really knew second hands moved so slowly.  I’m wavering and shaking.  The weight of the flag and the brass eagle are threatening to literally pull me off the stage.  The tip of the flag dips dangerously low toward the floor.  I can feel the strain in my back.  My father’s mouth has now stopped moving and is seemingly permanently opened as well.  My parents are actually holding hands.  Their eyes are wide.  
       I am a statue on the edge of collapse.  The drama will end when I fall off the stage.  But I will not grab the flagpole with my second hand until the song is finished.  I don’t know why, but those are the rules.  
       America the Beautiful, clearly the longest song ever written, has had new verses added to it by the diabolic Ms. Bailey while the statue is tottering.  And though I can lean into my back from time to time and get a little more lift, I cannot bring my right arm up an iota.   I am actually afraid I will start to cry.  I can feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.  I sense the grimace at the corners of my mouth.  I try to maintain a blank and stoical gaze.  I feel my whole body shaking and hope no one else can see it.  I count five seconds.  I count another five seconds.  We are nearing the end.  The flag dips ever closer toward the floor.  I arch my back and lean against the weight of the flag.  The audience moans the last words of the song.  I reach out with my left arm and grasp the pole and pull it back high into my chest.  There is a few seconds of silence, a pause, and then the audience literally bursts into spontaneous applause.  
       I lift the flag out of its carrying holster.  I gather the cloth and fold the flag across my chest.  I turn to my left and hand the flag off to my seventh grade replacement who literally sags when he grasps the full weight of the flag.  I turn right and lead the color guard off the stage to return to the seat held vacant for me in an alphabetically defined cosmic order.