Will Phillips isn't like other boys his age.
For one thing, he's smart. Scary smart. A student in the West Fork School District in Washington County, he skipped a grade this year, going directly from the third to the fifth. When his family goes for a drive, discussions are much more apt to be about Teddy Roosevelt and terraforming Mars than they are about Spongebob Squarepants and what's playing on Radio Disney.
It was during one of those drives that the discussion turned to the pledge of allegiance and what it means. Laura Phillips is Will's mother. “Yes, my son is 10,” she said. “But he's probably more aware of the meaning of the pledge than a lot of adults. He's not just doing it rote recitation. We raised him to be aware of what's right, what's wrong, and what's fair.”
Will's family has a number of gay friends. In recent years, Laura Phillips said, they've been trying to be a straight ally to the gay community, going to the pride parades and standing up for the rights of their gay and lesbian neighbors. They've been especially dismayed by the effort to take away the rights of homosexuals – the right to marry, and the right to adopt. Given that, Will immediately saw a problem with the pledge of allegiance.
“I've always tried to analyze things because I want to be lawyer,” Will said. “I really don't feel that there's currently liberty and justice for all.”
After asking his parents whether it was against the law not to stand for the pledge, Will decided to do something. On Monday, Oct. 5, when the other kids in his class stood up to recite the pledge of allegiance, he remained sitting down. The class had a substitute teacher that week, a retired educator from the district, who knew Will's mother and grandmother. Though the substitute tried to make him stand up, he respectfully refused. He did it again the next day, and the next day. Each day, the substitute got a little more cross with him. On Thursday, it finally came to a head. The teacher, Will said, told him that she knew his mother and grandmother, and they would want him to stand and say the pledge.
“She got a lot more angry and raised her voice and brought my mom and my grandma up,” Will said. “I was fuming and was too furious to really pay attention to what she was saying. After a few minutes, I said, ‘With all due respect, ma'am, you can go jump off a bridge.' ”
Will was sent to the office, where he was given an assignment to look up information about the flag and what it represents. Meanwhile, the principal called his mother.
“She said we have to talk about Will, because he told a sub to jump off a bridge,” Laura Phillips said. “My first response was: Why? He's not just going to say this because he doesn't want to do his math work.”
Eventually, Phillips said, the principal told her that the altercation was over Will's refusal to stand for the pledge of allegiance, and admitted that it was Will's right not to stand. Given that, Laura Phillips asked the principal when they could expect an apology from the teacher. “She said, ‘Well I don't think that's necessary at this point,' ” Phillips said.
After Phillips put a post on the instant-blogging site twitter.com about the incident, several of her friends got angry and alerted the news media. Meanwhile, Will Phillips still refuses to stand during the pledge of allegiance. Though many of his friends at school have told him they support his decision, those who don't have been unkind, and louder.
“They [the kids who don't support him] are much more crazy, and out of control and vocal about it than supporters are.”
Given that his protest is over the rights of gays and lesbians, the taunts have taken a predictable bent. “In the lunchroom and in the hallway, they've been making comments and doing pranks, and calling me gay,” he said. “It's always the same people, walking up and calling me a gaywad.”
Even so, Will said that he can't foresee anything in the near future that will make him stand for the pledge. To help him deal with the peer pressure, his parents have printed off posts in his support on blogs and websites. “We've told him that people here might not support you, but we've shown him there are people all over that support you,” Phillips said. “It's really frustrating to him that people are being so immature.”
At the end of our interview, I ask young Will a question that might be a civics test nightmare for your average 10-year-old. Will's answer, though, is good enough — simple enough, true enough — to give me a little rush of goose pimples. What does being an American mean?
“Freedom of speech,” Will says, without even stopping to think. “The freedom to disagree. That's what I think pretty much being an American represents.”
Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson smiles.