Clifford the Red Dog Defends Reading and Patriotism—At the Same Time!

Bill Rich not only spanked children, and evaluated reading curriculum when he was a school principal.  He also supervised patriotic flag raising, dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog for first graders, and even tried to encourage reading.  Sometimes he did all three things at once!  TW

by Bill Rich

Raising the flag each day at the school where I served as principal was a student responsibility. The 4th and 5th graders took turns in teams of 3 during the first 15 minutes of class to gather the flags from the cubby in the office where they were stored overnight and then take them to the flag pole that stood at the school entrance. The job wasn’t easy. You had to untie the semi-nautical knot the former team had left on the cleat on the side of the pole first. And at the end of the entire process you would re-cleat the rope. After the cleat was un-knotted, you sorted out which of the clips would be attached to which of the corners of the 3 flags. Inevitably, flags went up the pole in the wrong order or upside down and had to be re-raised to conform with flag protocol. As everyone knows, and the students learned, the American flag is at the top of the pole, next comes the California flag and below that, the school flag. We had a school flag as a result of parent club desires to build school spirit and to carry it in community parades. Additionally, the flags were carried appropriately. The American flag was not permitted to touch the ground and the same rule applied to the California flag. There was no official rule about the school flag but it gained status by proximity and so also benefitted in cleanliness from never touching the ground.

After the flag was raised, during the first hour of school, either the janitor, the secretary or I would check to see that the flags were raised correctly. If they weren’t then the team spent the morning recess fixing the situation.

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During my career in various school districts, several school board members seeking election to the board made the patriotic education of flag respect a campaign issue. One asserted he was fixing the schools by guaranteeing there was a flag in every classroom. There was really no classroom flag shortage, but in no time after he was elected, the superintendent provided every classroom with a brand new little “Made in China” flag on a stick about two feet long to replace the older little flags that adorned classroom walls in all the classrooms. These symbols were somehow to make up the foundation of this elected official’s efforts to reform and improve the schools in that town. As teachers and administrators, we heard nothing more about it following receipt and installation of the new flags. It became clear later that other constituencies must have seen this move as a shake up of significant proportions.

So in my next school, knew I was taking a risk by assuming that students could be responsible and learn by making mistakes with such a volatile issue as flag care. But memorization of a rigid set of ritualistic rules was not the best way to teach or learn, which was our main purpose. Indeed, we were breaking free from this memorization approach with arithmetic as well as writing with a great deal of success. Much involvement and enthusiasm seemed to be the basis for a formula of highly engaged learning.

Anyway, one typical morning I was deeply involved in “highly engaged learning” with a first grade class and the librarian who continuously promoted the fun of reading. She convinced me a year earlier to forgo whatever semblance of ‘dignitas’ I felt I carried and dress up in a red, furry, Clifford the Dog costume to read to the youngest students. Clifford was a character in a popular primary picture book series and students loved him. The costume was hot to wear so I always conducted these sessions in the first hour of school when it would be a cooler part of the day. My face actually looked out through a screen that was the dog’s partially open mouth. The dog’s eyes were simply pasted googly eyes farther up the dog’s head so I couldn’t see through them.

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I was in the middle of reading a story to a first grade class when the phone in the classroom rang. The teacher answered it and came over to me. She whispered there was an upset person in the office who needed to see me, ‘the principal.’ I asked what was up? The teacher continued to whisper it was about the flags. I asked the teachers to let the secretary know to send him down to the class and I would talk with him momentarily.

I opened the classroom door with the librarian trailing behind me since the reading session was over. The man was striding down the hall and saw me with the librarian. I intended to remove my dog head but the man came up to me so quickly that I wasn’t able to do it. He shouted, “Where is the principal?”

“I’m the principal,” I replied through the mouth of the red furry dog head.

The man looked up at the eyes of the dog head and angrily shouted, “Whose in charge of raising the American flag here?”

“I am, Sir,” I replied through the dog mouth in a feeble attempt at respect of a possibly military person.

“Well, he said, are you aware that the flags are sacred symbols of our country?”

“Yes sir!” The dog replied nodding enthusiastically? It felt like the man was talking to a hat I might have been wearing because he continued to look into the eyes of the dog that were not in the line of sight of my eyes.

“Well then, why do you have the American flag flying upside down and under the California flag? Is there a problem with our country? Are you some kind of Communist?”

“No sir, not a communist,” I said through the red dog mouth while the man glared at the dog’s googly eyes and the librarian started to titter. “There must have been a mistake in raising the flags this morning, sir.”

Still staring into the dog eyes above my face, the man shouted, “Then fix it immediately, God damn it!”

“Yes, sir!” I said through the dog mouth.

The door had been left open to the first grade class, and about this time one of the students peeked her head out of the room and whispered back to the class. “A mean man is cussing at Clifford!”

I saluted involuntarily but crisply in the red furry dog costume and the man saluted back. I turned to the little girl and calmly said, “Don’t worry, we are practicing reading out loud.”

This seemed to calm her and she went back into the classroom. After completing his crisp salute, the man turned and strode off towards the direction of the parking lot. He got into his car and drove off. The librarian broke out in uncontrolled laughter outside the room. I removed the dog head, wiped the sweat dripping from my head and walked back to the office.

My superintendent at the time spoke with me shortly thereafter about the incident. He heard about it through one of the board members who served the patriotic flag constituency of voters. Luckily for me, he convinced the board member who must have convinced the patriotic flag constituency that my method of flag-raising created better more involved and ultimately more patriotic students.

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