Last school year, my son—who was a fourth grader at a public school— came home with a red piece of paper entitled “Family Call to Action.” The letter on the front, preprinted by a corporation but signed by his teacher, informed me that my son would be joining the Target Stores and Hanes Corporation “Kids for Saving Earth” (KSE) Club, an “Earth Study and Reward Program” designed to teach students various earthsaving—or rather Earth-saving, because Target always begins the word earth with a capital “E”—lessons. Target Stores had devised the environmental curriculum, according to the red sheet, and would be providing rewards for successful completion of various environmentally friendly projects. This program would be integrated into the regular academic day. It was not being offered as an optional after-school club.
Reward number one would be a Target-plastered T-shirt, which the class had already agreed to wear every Friday, and a soft drink (both of which had to be retrieved at Target). There was only one prerequisite; the student and his entire family had to sign the pledge on the back of the letter.
The stakes were described as high. “Our family will work to make our household friendly to the environment,” the introduction to the pledge began. “We are responsible for the future of the Earth.” Then came the Orwellian part:
Our family will:
1. Read the KSE promise together as a family and mean it.
2. Recycle everything we can.
3. Reduce the amount of water we use as much as possible. (Hint: Turn off faucets when you’re not using the water.)
4. Rideshare, bike, or walk whenever possible to cut down on air pollution.
5. Protect native plants and animals in our yard and neighborhood. (It’s OK to pull the weeds!)
6. Thank others when they take action to protect the Earth. . . .
Target then trusted the oath-taker to add additional weighty commitments.
The KSE Promise, its title written in faux kid-print (no backward “s,” mercifully), appeared next to the pledge. The following is what our family had to not only recite together but mean:
The Earth is my home. I promise to keep it healthy and beautiful. I will love the land, the air, the water, and all living creatures. I will be a defender of my planet. United with friends, I will save the Earth.
A big arrow pointing to a dotted line was accompanied by another phony kidscrawl directing us to “cut off the signed part and turn it in to your teacher at school.” Below the line were six signature lines headed “Signed, the members of this family.”
The proposal was so offensive to me on so many levels that I found it impossible to describe my objections to this printed bit of idiocy in a coherent fashion. However, I told my son I would be calling his teacher to say that I would not be signing any pledge and that I was reasonably sure that his dad, an inveterate misanthrope and animal hater, would not be signing it either. His sister, a teenage barracuda, was also a poor recruitment prospect. Furthermore, I expected him to be able to participate fully in all academic programs, including awards for achievement, irrespective of what he, his parents, sister, dog, and mosquito fish do or do not believe about the environment or anything else. Finally, I believed the program to be unconstitutional and a violation of his civil rights and felt it probably violated school board policy. My son had just one response: “What about my T-shirt?”
I called my son’s teacher and expressed my distress about the program’s commercial bribery, political correctness, and unconstitutionality to no avail. The fact that I am a lawyer and knew what I was talking about did not seem to make much of an impression. “This is an issue we all have to deal with,” she explained, meaning environmental destruction, not thought control. I told her I expected my son to be able to participate fully in all academic programs regardless of his family’s willingness to sign a moronic pledge. To the extent that the program was political and not academic, I objected to it.
Then there was the T-shirt, which is all my son wanted out of the program. I therefore somewhat lamely added that my son should not be deprived of a T-shirt because of his parents’ political beliefs. The teacher said she thought she could adapt the program requirements somewhat, but I hung up the phone sensing defeat.
My fears were confirmed when my son returned home the following day with the news that he could obtain a T-shirt if we wrote and signed our own pledge. I called the principal.
Again, I ran through my objections to the whole Target proposal: bribing children to adopt a point of view, punishing children for the beliefs of their parents, and abandoning an information-based curriculum for one with a political agenda. I added that my son could do what he wanted regarding the pledge but that no one else in the family would be signing anything and that our position was not open to negotiation. Also, my son would like his T-shirt. The principal said he would get back to me.
Perhaps now is the time to concede that my son, whom I carried in my womb for nine long months and to whom I gave birth after a long and difficult labor, was profoundly embarrassed by my activism and took his teacher’s side in this dispute. To him, the virtuous side seemed obvious: his teacher was for the environment, and I was not. Also, his teacher could get him a certificate for a free T-shirt, and I could not. Then, too, he was afraid his teacher would hate him if I threw a tantrum over the proposal. Finally, there was proof in numbers. Of all the families with children in the class, ours was the only one to object to the program on philosophical grounds. “Why do you always have to turn everything into a public war?” he wailed.
Soon the principal called to say that my son could qualify for his T-shirt if he wrote and signed his own pledge. However, the pledge had to contain a statement that he promised to encourage others to recycle—that is to say, the pledge could not really be his. Additionally, he felt my objections to the program would be more appropriately directed to Target. I then called a member of the school board.
Meanwhile, against my wishes, my son began working on his pledge. Friday, T-shirt-wearing day, was nigh, as was the Target deadline for converting certificates into rewards. His pledge read as follows:
I believe recycling should be a necessity. I pledge to walk to school, to carpool, to recycle, to not destroy animals’ homes, and to not litter.
“This is the living end,” I thought to myself as I watched him selling his birthright to independent thought for a lousy T-shirt. He returned home the next afternoon with his prized certificate. My son was happy, but I was not.
The school board member saw the problems with the program right away. However, she is a controversial figure whose point of view is in the minority on the board. I told her that, in a fit of irrationality, I had contemplated contacting the American Civil Liberties Union, even though the ACLU had just sent me a form fundraising letter boasting that it would use my donation to battle people fitting my exact political profile, “I don’t know,” she said of the possibility. “They’re a real can of worms.”
However, she did present the Target material to an administrator in charge of curriculum, who later responded that I was being unreasonable. “The pledge is no different from the anti-drug and alcohol pledges that students are asked to sign,” she replied. Furthermore, accommodations were made for our family, and those accommodations should have resolved any problems. Another school board member echoed these sentiments but suggested that the issue be referred to the school corporation’s lawyer to see if my son’s civil rights were being violated. The ultimate verdict: the Target program had to go.
Grinning, I told my son that Mom had been proven correct. My position had been validated by the lawyers—his civil rights had indeed been violated, and in some small way we had beaten back the forces of tyranny.
“You sound like a liberal,” he retorted unhappily. He continued to worry that his teacher would hate him. But he hasn’t worn the T-shirt since.