BILL THOMPSON

In case you missed it, the FCAT might be robbing children of a well-rounded education, but thanks to a letter she wrote to the Star-Banner, Elizabeth Burke of Citra has received a real-world civics lesson.

A 10th-grader at North Marion High School, Elizabeth’s letter protested her school’s policy to bar the Stars and Bars from campus. As the school’s official dress code spells it out, in bold print even, "The wearing of or displaying of Confederate (rebel) flags is prohibited."

Now, North Marion students also cannot wear hats, pajamas or shower shoes to school, nor can they display their bellies, underwear, or "excessive cleavage."

Perhaps I’m getting old, but I understand concerns about exposed Fruit of the Looms, nuisance navels and blossoming cleavage.

Yet if anything seems excessive, it’s the prohibition against the Confederate battle flag – the only flag of any kind banned at North Marion.

Elizabeth, whose ancestors once shot at the Yankees, asserts the popular "heritage-not-hate" argument about her pride in the Confederate banner.

The problem is that true believers like Elizabeth have lost that battle in much of the public consciousness.

People like her who do, or want to, sport the Confederate flag on their clothes or cars – regardless of what is really in their hearts – will be stigmatized by those who don’t share their affection.

That’s because the Ku Kluxers, the skinheads and other malcontents ruined the flag that was marched into battle before the likes of Lee, Jackson and Stuart by using it to spread a destructive message of oppression, intimidation and hate.

Consider North Marion Principal Kathy Quelland, who administers a school where 28 percent of the students are black, the highest percentage among Marion County’s seven high schools.

In an e-mail, Elizabeth said Quelland explained to her the flag was forbidden because it "was a symbol of hate" and because the Klan was "strong in our area." Quelland, who could not be reached for comment, also wanted to "persuade me that it was in the best interest of the students to not bring up this issue," Elizabeth wrote.

Yet history, the First Amendment and molding young minds should be considered here.

The rich tapestry of America’s past is woven with the experiences of all our people and is captured as much, for example, by the Confederate flag as it is by the naming of public facilities after Martin Luther King Jr. You may not like that we display either one, but both symbols tell us where we have been as a people, and how difficult our struggle has been to get where we are.

Slavery was pure evil. But banning the Confederate flag at North Marion won’t change the past, won’t make life better for blacks now and won’t dictate how blacks and whites choose to live with that past.

Commenting in 1997 on a Confederate flag flap in South Carolina, the columnist Sam Francis wrote, "The blunt truth is that black slavery is part of the American heritage and part of the heritage of blacks and whites who today live in this country. It is part of the heritage because it really happened, and it will always have really happened no matter how many flags you tear down or songs you re-write."

It’s true the Supreme Court has determined that children don’t have the same constitutional protections as adults. Yet we live in an unhealthy time for political speech, of which wearing the Confederate flag is surely an expression.

When our power-hungry leaders dismiss legitimate dissent as treasonous or as morally or intellectually bankrupt, what message does it send to North Marion students, who in the near future will be participating in running our community and our country, when their government – in the form of the principal and her staff – tells people that a mere symbol must be outlawed because someone might be offended?

Our magnificent Constitution lays out many rights. But one you won’t find there – whether liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, warmonger or peacenik – is the right to not be offended.

But it appears North Marion would rather avoid discussing a tough, enlightening issue. After all, FCAT awaits.

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