Columns » John Brummett

‘Very solemnly, with a little bit of malice’



That 10-year-lad in West Fork, Will Phillips, has become something of a hero.

He's the youngster who declined to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school because gays and lesbians don't get liberty or justice in this country.

I've received scores of e-mailed congratulations from coast to coast myself for writing a column praising the youngster's courage and exercise of thoughtful freedom — and for explaining that the very idea of forcing anyone to pledge allegiance to a symbol of freedom is wholly antithetical to that freedom.

The Arkansas Times had its technological infrastructure challenged by the volume of responses to an article about the boy, most supportive, on its website.

All this happened after the story got picked up by The Huffington Post.

My respondents' theme is that they admire the lad and want to express support for him because they rather suspect a 10-year-old kid in Arkansas expressing such highly publicized unconventional views is enduring hateful backlash. There's been a little of that at school, apparently.

A couple of people wanted me to put them in touch with the parents, Jay and Laura Phillips, so they could contribute to a scholarship fund.

Laura tells me  the family has heard from all over America and parts of Europe and South America as well as India. Some people offer financial aid. Will has been invited to be grand marshal of a parade.

The volume of mail has been so great that the family set up a place for correspondence: Will Phillips, NWA Center for Equality, P. O. Box 9014, Fayetteville, AR, 72703.

In spectacles and seated politely beside his mildly amused father, a reasonably calm-seeming Will did a live interview Monday on CNN. The anchorman asked him about his having been sent to the principal's office when he, after four days of a substitute teacher's nagging that he stand for the pledge, spoke inappropriately to the teacher.

Asked by the anchorman what he said, Will recounted as follows: “Very solemnly, with a little bit of a malice in my voice, I said, ‘With all due respect, ma'am, you can go jump off a bridge.' ”

One dares not encourage a youngster to speak to an adult that way. But one does get a kick out of way the boy described it.

That led me to ask Laura if her child was normal and grounded and able to enjoy a kid's blessed bliss. Yes, don't worry about that, she said. But he understands, she said, that many people see him as a hopeful voice of a new generation.

“I hope that, by letting Will speak, conversations will start,” Laura said.

I believe they've already started.

I've received only a few negative responses to my previous column. One was from a man repeating something I was told years ago by a professed war veteran and about which I asked my late father, a Marine infantry rifleman on the front lines of Okinawa in World War II.

It's that I would understand pledging allegiance to the flag if I had fought in war, in which case the sight of that American flag would have been the only thing they kept me going.

So I asked my dad about that one day.

He was not very well educated and was altogether apolitical. He replied that you didn't see any flag where he was and that anybody fool enough to raise one from a foxhole out there would have gotten himself shot.

He said what kept you going was trying survive the moment and not be a coward.

It was perhaps the most profound discussion I ever had with my father. He never spoke so frankly of his experience again; in fact, he seldom spoke of it at all.

But trying not to be a coward — that's the essential assignment of freedom, it seems to me.

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