Eighth-grader Andy Chrvala has been to military funerals but he had never attended a flag retirement ceremony until Friday when five visiting military veterans presented a program at Avonworth Middle School.
The solemn event in front of Avonworth's Lenzner football field was arranged by civics teacher Jason Smith, 31, of Pine, to teach his students appreciation of their country.
"The experience of having them watch a flag retirement makes for a much more lasting memory," Mr. Smith said.
Led by veterans from the American Legion Bethel Memorial Post 760 in Bethel Park, Andy, 14, and his Avonworth classmates participated in a flag retirement ceremony, in which an old flag is burned, after learning from the veterans how to fold and honor the U.S. flag.
Past Cmdr. Bill Babcock of the South Hills Veterans Honor Guard said holding such ceremonies and teaching the kids how to properly salute and fold a flag are part of the American Legion's outreach to schoolchildren.
"This is the American Legion's service to the community," said World War II Marine Commandant Bob "Bullet" Daley, noting that the honor guard also performs military funerals. But it's clear that the veterans get something out of it, too.
"Before they left, the kids all gave me hugs," Cmdr. Babcock said. "We were impressed with these students. They were very appreciative and respectful, and we could tell that they like us. Their good behavior is a compliment to their parents."
Before they watched the flames devour an old, torn flag, Cmdr. James Manion told the students about certain customs surrounding flag retirement. "As you grow older, you will find yourselves appreciating the flag more and more," he told them. "Have pride in our flag; it is nothing to be ashamed of."
He led the students in the singing of "God Bless America" as the flag burned to ashes in an old file cabinet drawer and then "Taps" was played by a member of the honor guard.
Jacob Jaillet, 13, said he was grateful to the veterans for coming to his school. "Talking to them about their experiences in World War II showed me how hard it is to serve your country," he said. "But at the same time, they made me really proud to be an American."
Classmate Olivia Ley, 13, said, "Learning the rituals and facts about the flag makes me feel closer to our country. I love how precise the folding method is, so much thought and care ... and respect."
Mr. Smith has been teaching middle school civics for eight years, but this year he was particularly touched by the realization that his students have grown up with war as a fact of life.
"Last Wednesday, I asked my students what they knew about Sept. 11, 2001, and they all said that they were babies, just 1 year old," Mr. Smith said. "I suddenly realized that what's real to me is history to them."
Mr. Smith noted that he grew up in the 1980s -- a time of peace.
"Back then, we thought that wars were a thing of the past. But when I asked my class who has ever been to a military funeral, half of them raised their hands. Some of them have parents who have served in Iraq," he said.
Andy is one of those kids.
"My dad served in Iraq," he said, adding that he has attended military funerals for his father's fallen comrades. "My dad lost 15 guys in his unit. At their funerals, I felt a massive sense of grief, because they gave so much for their country. I have such a feeling of respect and pride for those who gave their lives so that me and family could live in freedom."
Andy said he intends to serve in the military someday and noted that the neat and orderly process of the flag retirement made him feel good about this country's future. "I am proud of my country, and I believe it will endure for a very long time."
Mr. Smith noted that the day's events made history more real to his students. "I could have shown them a movie about WWII, but you can't hug a movie," he said.
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: email@example.com.