During the last dragging years of the Cold War, I was just entering grade school. My mom was American, but my father was a Hungarian immigrant. And he wasn’t just Hungarian, he was a Hungarian nuclear physicist fluent in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. He had family still behind the Iron Curtain whose letters were sent to us with words cut out of them by the secret police. The one time he went to visit family he was briefed beforehand by the CIA on how to evade an abduction and what to do if he was captured. My mother, who he had married before the rest of his family even had a chance to meet her, was instructed on this visit to dress and style her hair like the Hungarians and try to blend in as much as a nearly six foot tall redhead who spoke only a few words of the language could.
Later I learned that my father had received his prestigious education in America because having received secret information that the Russians planned to execute my grandfather, my grandparents grabbed my father and the accordion and bicycled across a minefield to freedom. An uncle driving me across the border between Austria and Hungary around the time of my 16th birthday pointed out above the wildflowers dotting the route a single steel tower.
“What’s that for?” I asked. It was connected to nothing. There were no walls, no indicators and the checkpoint was miles behind us.
“That is where they shot Hungarians,” my Uncle replied, his broken English making the statement even more stark than it might have been. We were driving a road which cut through a field that was once littered with landmines. He spoke German and Hungarian, but not English. This was a trip I was meant to make with my grandfather who had hoped to finally tell me the details of their mad escape. My grandfather though had died just a few months prior. His death had been mercifully quick and occurred while he was playing the very accordion he had escaped with for friends.
I like to tell people my great-grandfather died of a broken heart believing his son to have been killed, but my grandfather died because his heart burst happy in the knowledge that his family was safe and if not happy, at least free to find happiness.
In 1956 when he was being tortured and threatened with execution over fabricated charges, that was not so certain.
My grandfather’s supposed crime was never really articulated as far as I can tell. But his arrest, torture, and fortunately thwarted execution, was facilitated by the fact that he had not sworn allegiance to the Hungarian Communist Party.
But I knew none of this until much later. I was a mostly normal six-year-old. Many of my Catholic school teachers and the parents of some of my classmates took a weird pleasure in reminding me that I wasn’t really welcome and I was a child of the enemy, although, they never really articulated exactly who that was or what it meant, and since I’m terribly literal I mostly just explained to them that they were incorrect and must be confused. But according to them, I wasn’t really a proper American and I never would be. I got the impression that their consensus was I would eventually fail or somehow fall to ruin like I was some medieval castle as opposed to a little girl. For me, I was just the weird kid who no one was allowed to talk to. Ironically, that’s why I did so well at school. I knew they hated me and I couldn’t figure out why so I thought that by getting good grades — by not failing — I could prove them wrong.
And that brings me to my first graded homework assignment in first grade. It was an outline of an American flag with a little girl and boy standing in front of it with their hands over their hearts. Below were several blank lines. We were meant to colour in the picture and write on those lines the Pledge of Allegiance.
Printed on the assignment was the message that we could, and probably should, ask our parents for help. If your parents are both American that may seem like a perfectly normal thing to do. But recall, my father was bundled across a minefield and had to run halfway across the world ostensibly because his father stood up for the principles of freedom and refused to swear allegiance to a political Party which almost explicitly stood for authoritarianism.
Being 6 though, I knew nothing of this. All I knew is I wanted a doctorate when I grew up. And I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to show everyone that girls are smart and that I did belong. So, I went up to my father who was at his computer working and asked for his help. He agreed and I showed him my assignment. I had already coloured in the flag and the kids. All I needed was the Pledge.
He took the assignment from me and his face utterly changed. I didn’t really understand what was happening. He gripped the paper so tight I thought his fingers would go through it. He turned away briefly and being a child who can’t read emotions I thought maybe he was reaching for a pen or a book. Finally, he frowned. That I knew portended bad things and I wondered what I had done wrong. I was trying to figure out a way to tell him that I just hadn’t memorized the Pledge yet when he decisively and without uttering a single word tore the paper right down the centre severing the two children from one another and cutting the flag in half. Still without saying a word he turned back to his work leaving my ruined homework on the desk beside him.
I was horrified. I picked up the torn page and imagined how I could somehow tape it back together. How could I explain this to my teacher? In my mind my dreams of earning a doctorate evaporated. How could I excel at school and earn a PhD if my father destroyed the very first homework assignment I ever had? Did he too think little girls couldn’t be smart? How could I prove my worth with a torn homework assignment?
I took my destroyed assignment — the single page of paper that was supposed to herald the start of a career of academic excellence — and did what any six-year-old would do. I ran to my mother.
I was not privy to the conversations that were held after. My father was mad. I could tell by his raised voice. And my mom was agreeing with him. How could she? I had done nothing wrong. Hadn’t I? I did make out one phrase from her, “I know, but did you have to tear it up?”
My mom also spoke to my first grade teacher who was clearly unhappy but agreed not to hold it against me. I felt like an absolute failure when I had been trying to be a success. It absolutely eluded me why my father had torn up my homework.
But now I know he was entirely right to do so.
My father is a deeply flawed person. He’s not unethical, and he’s clearly smart, but he is unwise and I don’t think he ever did learn how to care for me or my brother. I do actually believe he loved my mother and I know he’s proud of me, but I really do doubt that he ever loved me. To my father I am a cat. I’m cute, I’m smart, he’s proud of me when I speak intelligently to others and do great things, but he didn’t really choose for me to be part of his household and he’d probably not care if I did not exist. I’m not saying this out of resent or awe. I exist because my mother wanted me more than anything in the world and for all the disinterest my father showed, to my mom I was a priceless treasure.
The lesson I learned from that incident was that my father couldn’t be trusted. Before that moment I would insist he play with me and he took me on bike rides, but after that I knew that to him, I was just a cat. And I needed to act like a cat. My father wasn’t going to care for me so I needed to either rely entirely on my mom or care for myself. It was a lesson that served me well later in life, but it wasn’t the correct lesson to learn from the incident.
So let’s move away from my family dysfunction and the fractured psychology of a refugee and onto what that assignment really was and why my father was right to be furious even if his method of expressing that anger was disordered at best.
The assignment was insidious. It was framing not just patriotism but extreme unquestioning loyalty down to nationalistic sentiment as moral, upstanding, and the gateway to scholastic achievement. The reason I had been given the assignment was so I could memorize the Pledge of Allegiance and recite it every day in the morning before lessons.
For a country that claims to be about freedom, fair elections, personal choice, and critical thought the idea that children must recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day before they even have the capacity to understand the words in it let alone the meaning is pretty hypocritical.
Let’s have a look, shall we?
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
When I was a kid I thought the “Republic” was an entirely different country and wanted to know which one, I didn’t know what “allegiance” meant, I thought it read “one nation under God invisible with liberty …” and thought that was a bit strange, and one time I said “amen,” at the end because I didn’t understand the difference between the Pledge and the prayers we were being taught.
I was basically being coerced into a contract I did not have the capacity to understand without anyone explaining what it meant. The teachers explained it in very broad strokes and said I shouldn’t say, “amen,” at the end and also the word isn’t “invisible,” it’s “indivisible.” But at no point did they explain that this was us more or less swearing that if it came down to it we’d sacrifice our lives for our nation and possibly even tell on our families. If as an adult you want to make a contract like that and swear such an oath you are welcome to do so. Presumably you understand what you are swearing. A child cannot understand that.
My father felt that this was indoctrination near identical to that which threatened his own life as a child and caused his family so much suffering. And he was right.
But before you accuse my father of sedition or something let me tell yet another relevant anecdote from his life. Before he set to work on improving safety for nuclear power plants he wanted to work on US nuclear submarines. He had read up on several of the higher up brass in the Navy in anticipation of being interviewed by them and he and my mother had apparently discussed how to answer their likely questions in such a way that would both explain his personality and please them. My father wanted to serve in the US Navy and I suspect that part of what drove him was based on what the USSR had done to him. He would have taken the oath gladly. But it would have been his choice, it would have been just him, and he would have done so as an adult.
Ultimately, my father’s hopes of joining the Navy were dashed. His blood pressure was too high. So, for better or for worse he designed, improved, and inspected power plants.
Democracy though, and political freedom is about freedom of mind. If you are indoctrinated you cannot have critical thought. It is right because it is right. My father’s outburst was poorly handled and it took years for me to understand and appreciate what he meant by tearing up my assignment. Because he failed to communicate effectively I did recite the Pledge of Allegiance until I discovered for myself what it truly meant.
I actually now and at the time of discovery have no issue with the Pledge of Allegiance. I am pro-democracy and as long as America strives towards democracy and freedom I am and will be dedicated to it as a nation. But I reserve the right to cast a critical eye towards my nation’s errors and failures with the aim of correcting the same and I do this now as a fully grown woman who understands what oaths she might take. It is wrong to demand an oath of a child.
My father was right to tear up that assignment. Because of that I stopped trusting him, but I also started questioning authority and accepted fact. It may seem like a non-sequitur but because my father tore up that assignment, rather than lose my chance at a doctorate I have earned my doctorate. I learned in that moment that fact must be based in reality rather than belief. From that moment on someone telling me something was so simply because it was no longer was satisfying.
I needed to know why. I will always need to know why.