The tall blond woman at the podium told us the rule: Always turn and face the largest flag in the room. The room, in fact, was full of flags, three dozen little flags-on-a-stick, gifts from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which each of us held in our new American hands. I'd never known this rule for saying the Pledge of Allegiance in all my years of standing there, greeting the new school day, barking the words in chorus.
There was one big flag conveniently located next to the podium, so we did not have to move much to face it. I was perhaps the only one there for whom this was just a matter of going through the motions, since I'd lived in the United States most of my life but had never gotten around to becoming a citizen. The people around me all had complicated stories, and this day for them was the end of a long, uncertain journey -- but I was the only one crying.
The INS woman's eyes met mine, and she misinterpreted my tears, I know.
Earlier that day, in the waiting area of Baltimore's Fallon Federal Building, I had sat with about 100 others, all there in pursuit of adjustments of status. A strange music of language spun around me -- lilting African tongues, the rapid syllables of Korean, waterfalls of Spanish. For reasons of Homeland Security, the INS was about to reinvent itself as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, but only the name would change, not the daily crowd of hopefuls trying for visas, green cards and citizenship.
The ones waiting for naturalization interviews, like me, were easy to spot, reviewing their 100 questions on much folded and unfolded study sheets. When I'd seen the questions, it looked easy enough -- commit a few numbers to memory, get those 13 Colonies straight. But here I watched men with deep frowns bending their faces close to the paper, going back and forth between questions and answers, and I saw what an anxious task they had, memorizing dozens of largely meaningless responses.
For instance, No. 73, "Who helped the Pilgrims in America?" -- if you don't know who the Pilgrims were, how can the answer, "the American Indians," make actual sense? I indulged a warped fantasy of an immigration interview featuring No. 79 ("Which president freed the slaves?") to which the interviewee might respond, "Sorry, that was before my time." The interviewee might be, say, from Uganda, with a young nephew or a baby sister kidnapped by the rebel military, and could go on to tell the interviewer a thing or two about slavery.
For my part, the only thing that interested me -- and interested me a lot -- about the civics test was the one question I felt sure, these days, they'd have to drop from the lineup: No. 84.
I was nervous, even though I knew all the answers, while my interviewer was beyond the opposite of nervous -- bored, distracted, even as she rattled off questions and flipped through her papers. She had long, curly black hair, lots of makeup, lipstick like a fresh bruise. She was originally from the Philippines, and I wondered about her story -- whether she'd once sat where I was now and thought, "Someday I'll have your job."
She could see on my application I was divorced, and she mentioned this along with my age and revealed that she was a couple of years older and divorced herself for two years, and that she was puzzled as to why her ex called her the other day, especially as she only recently found out he'd remarried and couldn't understand how he could get married again so soon and she asked him why he called and he said to see how she was doing and she told him not to call her anymore. I sat tensely on my chair and murmured in a supportive way at the woman who held my fate in her pen, which was making big red marks all through the layers of my file.
She asked me leftover Cold War questions like "Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" It did not inspire confidence in the INS to see this. I wanted to say, "When are you gonna get with the times?" The U.S.S.R. is history and China is full of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lithuania and Slovakia are joining NATO. Why not rewrite the question, "Have you ever been a member of al Qaeda?"
At last we got to the citizenship test. She read the questions off her computer, turning away, though, as soon as she started asking them, as if ad-libbing:
"What do the stripes on the flag mean?"
"They stand for the 13 Colonies."
"Why did you get divorced?"
"Um -- it was a -- uncontested. . . . Um, irreconcilable differences."
"Which president is called 'the father of our country'?"
"What do you do now on your vacations, since you are divorced? I mean, where do you go, what do you do?"
"Um -- I go, um, camping sometimes and I go on trips with friends. . . . "
"How many Supreme Court justices are there?"
And so on. We reached the end of the five or six questions randomly selected from the hundred possibilities -- a metaphor, I decided, for the crapshoot of citizenship itself. The last one she asked me was it -- No. 84. The one I wondered if they had quit asking.
"Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?"
I smiled. I produced the required response. "Everyone -- both citizens and noncitizens living in the U.S."
This, indeed, was part of the reason I was here now, why I'd decided that my green card status was no longer enough.
So now the 36 of us stood together, each holding our little flag, a screen-printed piece of cloth attached to its skinny pine-dowel flagpole with two tiny staples. These had been given to us to accompany our reciting of the naturalization oath. The oath, not to be confused with the Pledge, is just 141 words long but stresses one's commitment, not once but four times, to defend the country in time of war. The oath, the magic spell that turned us into citizens, was not what made me cry.
Back in grade school I had a friend, Chrissie, who was from England, just as I was, and we got it in our heads that as noncitizens we had the right, indeed the responsibility, to say the Pledge of Allegiance in a special, nonbinding way. We practiced our odd, modified ritual all through our grade school years. We stood and said the Pledge, right along with everybody else -- but with our arms hanging straight at our sides.
Now the INS woman at the podium was giving us our instructions: Turn and face the largest flag in the room, and place your right hand over your heart. I lifted my hand to my chest, suddenly remembering Chrissie and the way we did it all those years, and my hand felt strange there, and I realized as I said the words, which were as familiar to me as all the other prayers of childhood -- the Our Fathers, the multiplication tables, the singsong rhymes of skipping rope -- that this was the first time I'd ever said them that I had to mean them. My voice trembled, and my hand trembled, as I pledged allegiance to this country that, at that moment, trembled on the brink of war. My feelings for America rose before me, suddenly immense and complex. It was not ambivalence exactly, but a great, complicated weight of feeling.
Around me, the faces of my fellow new citizens were calm, happy. No tears. Their journeys were far more arduous than mine, with so much more at stake, so why weren't they choking up, holding back tears? They were too relieved, I supposed. The time for tears was past.
I pledged allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, thinking, this is where I am, where I am rooted, quite by accident. I knew I was lucky that, among other things, my new country was a place where I could say what I thought, about -- for example -- Question 84.
I will probably never see any of my fellow new citizens again, but there is one thing we will always have in common. We all know now, if we get the urge to say the Pledge, to turn not to whatever happens to be lying around handy, but to the biggest old flag we can find.