Friday, September 3, 2010

US Flag Protocol? Why bother?

I take pains here to keep the location and the person I refer to unidentifiable, since I hope and believe that that person would be mortified if s/he were “outed” publicly. S/He has lots of ‘splaining to do, and would no doubt prefer to do it in private.

I was in a government building the other day at closing time. As I wrapped up my business I glanced out the window to observe a government employee completing the end-of-the-day routine. The employee was taking down the flag of the United States of America.

The employee lowered the stars and stripes down the staff, detached it from the halyards and dropped it onto the ground, freeing up hands to secure the halyards. Once the halyards were fixed, the employee picked up our flag, gave it a little shake, and folded it like a teenager folds a bath towel, tucked it into an armpit, and headed back toward the building..

I saw something like this not once, but twice before, at schools where I worked. The honor of raising the flag in the morning and lowering it at day’s end belonged to custodians in those schools. Way back when, someone made the assignment, likely without designating the task as an honor or without providing any training as to proper protocol. Over time the honor morphed into a duty, a task, even a chore, and then finally, a bother. Like jury duty. Or voting.

I corrected the procedures at the schools where I worked, obtaining training for staff members charged with care of the flag. I can see now that I should have widened my vision for surely, in a district of 50+ schools, the carelessness I witnessed was likely widespread.

Why isn’t that honor assigned to students? Don’t know why I didn’t think of it then. It seems so obvious looking back. JROTC trained students at one of the schools where I worked before. I invited them to the other schools for special occasions to present the flags of the United States of America and the State of California. They always did an excellent job following protocol with dignity. Students and staff in my schools responded to such ceremony with their heads held high and hands over their hearts.

Why didn’t I think of training students to take on the daily honors at my schools?

And now, here it is again: An adult carelessly handling the flag. More than carelessly, thoughtlessly.

Again, I’m faced with my responsibility. What should I do in a case like this? You already know I did nothing. I even averted my eyes.

Should I have attempted to speak to that employee myself? Probably. Like most of us, that employee would most likely prefer to handle things like this personally, without their coming to the boss’s attention. But it’s uncomfortable to confront someone I’ve never met, even with the best intentions. That person couldn’t help feeling accosted and embarrassed. Maybe angry…who am I to tell you how to do your job? Who am I to tell you how to handle the flag?

I could have gone to the boss. Didn’t do that either. It was closing time after all. That’s my excuse, er, my reason for walking away, head down, distressed and inept.

I could go back. I could clip this column and leave it on the counter anonymously. Maybe I’ll highlight crucial passages so they will be sure to get the idea it was about their building, their employee. Then they’ll take it to the boss who will make things right. Yeah, that’s it. I could do that.

But why? What does it matter really? What difference does it make that one person in one place did one inappropriate thing?

On the other side, so what if one person learns to treat the flag with its due respect? An employee now follows protocol. Most of the time, no one’s looking anyway. Big deal.

I wonder who the honored employees are in other buildings where our flag is flown.

Who raises and lowers the symbol of our country in our banks, federal buildings, schools? Has someone smarter and more visionary than I established a process for teaching our employees and our young people the power of the symbol, the dignity of the task, and the weight of the responsibility?

I’ll vote for that person, the smart one with the long distance view…after I serve my jury duty.