Growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut, our public school system didn’t have the “Character Education” Program we now have in Charlotte (or possibly the whole state of NC or the entire U.S – I haven’t looked up the details). Maybe teaching kids how to build “good character” using this particular system is a relatively new phenomenon, or maybe I’m just behind the times. But surely, every child grows up being taught “right” from “wrong” and “good” from “bad”. Which side do I fall on? It turns out that (at least from my experience) any particular moment is a potential field of infinite probabilities for standing on any number of sides. I do something “bad” with “good” intention in this moment and things start to get a little gray. Aside from that, is it really possible to teach character? Well, this introductory paragraph is the lead in to a blog piece all its own. For now, let’s take a quick look at how “Character Education” works in the elementary school system that my children attend.

Character ed

Each month of the school year is paired with a different character trait. For example, September is “Respect”, October is “Responsibility”, November is “Honesty”, and December is “Caring” and so on.  Parents volunteer to come in once a month to teach a 30 to 40 minute lesson about the character of the month to encourage students to “show good character”. I’m one of those volunteers and I struggle to understand what it means to “teach good character.”

In our Character Education program, February’s character trait is “citizenship” and two years ago I found myself in the position of teaching my daughter’s kindergarten class about the responsibilities of being a good citizen in general, and in particular, a good “American citizen”.

American Flag

Talking about our responsibility to the community we live in was easy. Sharing living space with others means sharing the responsibility of keeping that space clean and safe. It means participating in discussions on how to make that space more livable. It means putting all our hands together to make those ideas a reality, and continuously making sure that the space we live in grows in balance and proportion to our own growth. Balance, of course, is essential in every aspect of life.

But the second part of the lesson, the part about being a good “American” citizen made me feel uneasy. And as I made American flags out of Popsicle sticks and paper printed flags the question suddenly struck me, “Is there a World Flag?” I looked up the United Nations Flag which looks like this:


I read that “The olive branches are a symbol for peace, and the world map represents all the people of the world.”

Okay, so apparently there’s a world flag, but it’s not flown anywhere that I’ve ever seen, except at the United Nations or UN events I’ve only seen on T.V. , or “can be used by the personnel and material of UN peacekeeping missions as a protective sign to prevent attacks during an armed conflict.” Even then, why do we have to have any flags representing anyone or anything at all? Are we one human race populating the third mass from the sun in isolation from the rest of the universe? Don’t the molecules and atoms that make up our bodies and minds come from the stuff of stars, from the building blocks of the universe which is ALL here NOW, at once, without division or separation?

I remember watching a film in class when I was a teenager. I happened to watch one of those typical commercials about feeding hungry children in Africa by way of monthly donations. I later asked my teacher if she had ever donated to them and received letters back from a thankful child. I was so surprised when she told me that if she were to give money to feed hungry children , then she would first give to children belonging to her own country and not some foreign place (foreign in what sense? Distance? Heritage? Race? Culture? Religion? All of the above?)

I remember arguing with her. It made no sense to me at all because what I imagined was ME as a hungry child. A hungry child is a hungry child and nothing more or less. I wondered if I were a hungry child standing in front of her could she possibly say, ‘you aren’t this kind of child, so I can’t help you’ or ‘I help my own kind first?’  And yet, if it were MY family’s well being at stake, MY family’s hungry mouths, I would have given the exact same response. Am I really so different from that teacher when I wouldn’t discriminate between two children from different nationalities, yet would distinguish between them and MY family?

These questions and realizations suddenly struck me as so bizarre. The way human beings tend to behave collectively seems quite similar to how people tend to behave as individuals. Identifying  myself with a nation (my country vs. your country) is really not much different than identifying myself as an individual (me vs. you) or (my family vs your family).

Pink Floyd

Whether our relationship is with one human being or many human beings we’re always talking about peace as we tote our rifles. We speak of coming together in harmony and changing the world for the better and for the good of humanity as a whole, yet we continue to define borders and raise walls as if one could divide the indivisible earth, or own a piece of it. We even declare parts of the earth’s atmosphere and great oceans as “ours” and “theirs”!

Are our actions aligned with our words? Are our hearts in harmony with our conscience? Would “self defense” be necessary if every person on earth recognized that there is no disconnected individual self –  that the center of the universe is not the mind and body of any single man or woman?

I’ll lay these thought to rest for now with just one final observation: When Neil Armstrong placed his foot on the surface of the moon he said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He then proceeded to plant an American flag into the earth’s moon.