BY ALLISON BATDORFF
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The contrast between elementary and middle school can be striking.
The one-room sanctuary disappears into a swirl of scheduling and switching classrooms. Frank conversation on topics like bullying, cutting and “sexting” replace cuddlier cautions. Kids are bigger, schoolwork is more complicated and the pace picks up.
Robyn Hentschel, 12, spent the first two months of sixth grade blinking in amazement, she said.
“The first days, everything seemed so glamorous,” Hentschel said. “I didn’t see anyone I knew in the halls. The kids seemed so big. It was exciting. But my brain kept saying ‘something is missing.’”
It was the Pledge, she decided. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a comforting elementary school ritual, was not a part of her new day. But it wasn’t something Hentschel wanted to outgrow.
A little background: the blond Hentschel is naturally shy. She is the first to admit that she has trouble expressing herself, too. People around her learn not to rush in and supply the words. They give Hentschel space to work through her thoughts and communicate in her own way.
Building up the courage to talk to her teachers took time, Hentschel said. She tried twice, but forgot her flag in the car, she said.
One fall morning Hentschel got herself in position, flag in hand, and waited for the classroom door to open. She put a nervous smile on her face.
Sue Laisure opened the door and Hentschel asked the teacher if they could say the Pledge that morning.
Laisure was surprised, she said. The veteran teacher wasn’t sure what the rule was and figured the Pledge’s “under God” would require an administrative blessing. She said as much to Hentschel.
“I explained that we all have different religions, cultures and beliefs,” Laisure said. “We can’t step on other peoples’ toes or exclude anyone.”
Oddly enough, permission popped into Laisure’s email inbox that afternoon in the form of a memo outlining Michigan’s new Pledge requirement. The law mandates that every public K-12 student has the opportunity to say the Pledge in school, but does not compel them to participate. A companion law requires flags in classrooms where students say the Pledge. The law went into effect for the 2013-2014 school year, and joins Michigan to 40 other states with similar laws. All secondary schools within the Traverse City Area Public Schools system implemented the law as of January 2014.
“Until then, it was up to the individual teachers whether to say or not say the Pledge in their classrooms,” said Steven Urbanski, East Middle School lead principal. “The decision was classroom-driven.”
Instituting the new law spurred the school to take stock of existing procedures, flag supplies and figure out the logistics. Middle and high school students change classrooms every hour, and “resource”— the equivalent of homeroom — is at the day’s end. The school’s principals opted to take turns leading the Pledge over the PA system in the morning. Next year, they hope to get more “student voices” involved, Urbanski said.
This includes dissenting voices as it’s important that students make up their own minds about reciting the Pledge, Urbanski said. Middle school is an important time of growth and independence, and he is proud of Hentschel for making her voice heard, he said.
“Following one’s passion is a strong sign of leadership,” Urbanski said. “It’s not easy for young people to ask questions of adults.”
The Pledge stoked Hentschel’s confidence, which bodes well for her future, Laisure said. “Self advocacy is so important. It’s a skill she (Hentschel) is going to need in college, in her job, really everywhere.”
Hentschel said that she is glad that the law allows her to participate in the Pledge, as being able to recite it makes her “full of joy,” she said.
“I was shy before, but I’m not shy now.”