I attended a small parochial school from preschool through sixth grade. Among other things, this school was big on Responsibility. The students in every grade had certain Responsibilities, which changed and accumulated as you moved up through the different grade levels. Even our reward system was designed to teach Responsibility: I remember being praised (along with a classmate) for something or other in third grade, and as our reward, we got to go outside and beat the chalkboard erasers against the pavement, cleaning them out (yippee!). The fact that we were delighted to do so speaks more to the deft maneuvering of the teachers than the actual joy of the task.
By the time we reached sixth grade, I (along with all seven of my fellow classmates) had various Responsibilities, which we rotated through each week. One week I would be in charge of devotions at the start of the day, the next I was helping serve lunch, then I was bringing milk to the little kids for their morning snack.
One such Responsibility with which we were entrusted was that of Flag Duty. Working in pairs, we would take the American flag, unfold it, hook it up to the flag pole, and hoist it up at the beginning of the day. At the day's end, we would reverse the whole process, carefully folding it and putting it away when finished. When you were on Flag Duty, you had to keep a careful eye on the windows of your classroom, because if rain threatened, it was you and your partner's Responsibility to hustle outside and bring the flag down.
Part of Flag Duty included specific instructions given at the beginning of the year on how to take care of the flag; also known as Respecting the Flag. Respect for the flag included folding it in a very specific and precise manner, not allowing it to get wet or tattered in any way, and never ever ever allowing it to touch the ground.
Now, being snotty eleven- and twelve-year-olds, we naturally had to question what the big deal was with the flag and the ground- although never in the presence of any kind of authority figure (read: teacher, principal, pastor, janitor, etc). Being relatively compliant little Lutherans, we never actually let the flag come in contact with the ground, but we questioned and joked about it frequently: What would actually happen if it did slip and fall? Spontaneous combustion? An earthquake splitting the ground and swallowing the offending cloth whole? And what if one of us had a seizure or a heart attack or something, and then dropped it? Was that still considered Disrespect? At eleven years old, I had a pretty firm theoretical grasp on the whole Respecting the Flag concept, but little real world knowledge.
I was reminded of my elementary school naivete yesterday, while watching war veterans handle an American flag. Derek's grandpa passed away last week. A World War II veteran, his funeral service included a gun salute, the playing of Taps, and of course, the American flag.
I watched those two men fold that flag in precise triangles, ending with only the white stars on a field of blue visible. As they carefully handled it, never letting it fall, it occurred to me that Respecting the Flag isn't really about the flag at all: it's about all that it represents. Right then, it was a symbol of the gratitude and appreciation for the wartime service of one man. It was acknowledgment and it was thanks for his bravery and courage. It was Respect for a person.
It's only taken me 17 years, but I think I finally get it.