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February 29, 2012

Presidentsí Day Addition and Subtraction

Norman M. Covert

Anyone who has the courage to ask questions of second graders must be ready for answers which may or may not be in the teacher’s syllabus. That lesson was learned at Parrs Ridge Elementary School, Mt. Airy, two weeks ago.


In case Frederick County students didn’t know, Presidents’ Day Weekend is four days, not three. One hundred seventy-five second graders shouted it out that Friday afternoon, not long before they would scatter for the holiday.


Carroll County schools added a teachers’ in-service day to the weekend – hooray!


We also learned that 21-plus-10 equals 31 – not 41.


And we celebrated more than the presidents’ birthdays that weekend. God bless the teachers and their ability to avoid being intimated by these bright young children.


Three members of the veterans’ organization Society of the 40&8 were given permission to present a program on the American Flag at the school. The presentation is “Flags for First Graders,” but the school thought we should do second graders instead. We bowed to their wisdom.


The program, set up by Korean War veteran Joe Fisher, is intended to present a history of the flag, talk about honoring the flag and National Anthem and show them how to fold the flag.


In my capacity as a 40&8 national director of Americanism, I suggested a script was available if we could get permission from a local elementary school. We would close the program with the Pledge of Allegiance and present each student with a hand-size American Flag.


Mr. Fisher, who is active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion as well as the 40&8, took the bait and approached Parrs Ridge Principal Ann M. Blonkowski in late October. He followed up after the Christmas break when each of the teachers could be contacted for their assent. February 17th at 2 P.M. was approved and local 40&8 Chef de Gare Jim Beckman agreed to join us.


Youth leaders, whether in sports or scouting, know the challenge of communicating with children of all ages. You must never admit defeat and always “be in charge,” whether it has slipped away or not.


We were set up in the library media room and seven classes of enthusiastic students were seated shoulder to shoulder, each line tucked so close they were almost underfoot.


When the script disappeared we had to ad lib, first asking the name of the holiday weekend coming up. There was little hesitation as a young man held up his hand and blurted out ‘Presidents’ Day.” Good start, we thought.


“And whose birthdays are we celebrating this weekend?”


Up went the hands. “My brother,” one proclaimed, followed by another’s answer, “My cat,” then, “My dog,” followed by a timid voice in the back, “George Washington!”


Whew, success! “Correct, who knows which other president’s birthday we are celebrating?”


It took some doing, but out of the sea of hands we chose the student who timidly named Abraham Lincoln. That broke the ice.


We got right to the history of the flag, showing the original stars and stripes with the circular presentation of 13 stars in a blue field. That correctly brought out the name Betsy Ross as the lady credited in lore as having sewn the first flag after its adoption in 1777.


They were ready with answers about Francis Scott Key, too, and his writing “The Star Spangled Banner” under its original title, “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Yes, they knew he was born on a local plantation.


We displayed the first of two flags sewn by the late National Guard Lt. Col. Robert Barrick of Frederick. It was the 1851 Colors taken on Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan in 1854.


“It has 41 stars,” we said after a quick glance at the flag. “Look, there are three rows of seven stars and two rows of five stars.”


“No,” came the shout from several bright and confident students. “That is 31 stars!”


One glance, as we retraced our steps, revealed, yes, three rows of seven and two rows of five – duh, that’s 31, we muttered.


“Great counting, kids,” we remarked, trying to ignore a red face and the teachers ‘collective sighs. We moved right along to the 44-star flag from 1891 without taking a deep breath. "Help me count the stars here."


The “gotcha” fueled the students’ enthusiasm. Jim stepped in as emcee as Joe and I prepared to fold the casket flag, which turned out to be the larger 8-by-12-foot flag. We didn’t notice the old creases and folded the flag inside out, revealing only the stripes.


Bloody but unbowed, we unfolded the flag and this time followed the creases. Our mistake emphasized the proscribed “Cocked Hat,” featuring the blue field of stars, the proper conclusion of the triangular fold. The lesson was emphasized for teacher and student.


What was the verdict of our foray into elementary school education? We were pumped by the enthusiastic cheers of the 175 second graders as we showed them the flags to be given by their teachers, gathered our gear, found the script and waved goodbye.


We found ourselves with a hit and probability of a future gig. Principal Blonkowski and Assistant Principal Jan Bubnash were enthusiastic and didn’t hesitate to recommend our program to another school.


We will, however, conduct our own after-action and be better prepared at the next school, expecting just as much joy and spontaneity with the children.


I will improve my 10-fingered digital calculator.


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