By Roger Barbee
Last week I gave a test to my high school seniors. The last part of the test was for extra credit in which a student could earn up to an additional five points. See how you do on this part of the test by filling in the correct missing word of a well-known poetry verse:
"Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's __________ light,
What so proudly we ___________ at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and _________ stars, thru the perilous fight,
"O'er the ___________ we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' ________ glare, the bombs bursting in _______,
Gave _________through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled __________ yet wave
O'er the ___________ of the free and the __________of the brave?"
What caused me to ask my students this question was an observation and suggestion by my best reader, Mary Ann. Over the course of this wrestling season, she had noticed that at most meets, the National Anthem was played, not sung. Spectators were asked to stand, remove caps, and face the flag in a proper manner while the song was played. At my school, the song is referred to as No. 5 on the disc. At all wrestling meets in our gym it is played, not sung.
The first verse of a four-verse poem titled "In Defense of Fort McHenry" by Francis Scott Key, what would become our National Anthem was set to music written for a song titled "The Anacreontic Song" by John Stafford Smith, an Englishman. At the 1917 World Series it was first sung to honor our soldiers fighting the Great War. Eventually, in 1931, Congress proclaimed it as the National Anthem.
Now, I know my experience this past winter season is limited, and that in several instances the song is sung. In fact, at the recent state wrestling tournament in Salem, it was sung by local high school students. However, it seems to me that most times it is played, and I wonder if we should not ask spectators to sing along with the singer or the music, whichever is used. After all, if we lose our memory of these words, can we be serious citizens of our nation? If we do not know and understand our own history, can we be contributors to our democracy? If we cease to be active contributors, can our democracy thrive?
I understand and appreciate that finding a singer who is capable and willing to sing our National Anthem can be difficult. Yet, can we all not stand together and sing together in order to honor this nation before an athletic event. If we do not "use it" we may "lose it," and that could do irreparable harm to our form of government. We owe it to our youngsters to expect them to know these words and their history and their importance. Perhaps even when a singer is used, the spectators could sing along with her or him. Long ago, when I was a kid, it was announced, "Now, let us all stand and sing our National Anthem." Why not begin that custom again?
In an exchange of emails with Kevin, a student from the 1980s who lives in Charlottesville, he writes about a snowstorm in December of 1985, a Latin exam, his teacher Mr. Joyce, and his grade. In the email he uses what I find to be a delightful and thought-provoking phrase, "the goodness that education can offer." Although Kevin was making reference to a particular time and event, his phrase is a reminder of the importance of knowledge. Just as the north star is a beacon for a traveler,Kevin's words give us cause and reason to value education.
In my mind, we owe the best education possible to our children. While we may not know all
the things they will face in 2025, we know that they will be better citizens for knowing their country's history and its language. We can make a good step by expecting them to know all the words of our National Anthem. After all, that is proof of "the goodness that education can offer."
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.