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What Is Our Ceremony of Belonging?

What is our ceremony of belonging? As Americans. I am not referring to a ceremony of belonging to a particular religion. Nor am I referring to an initiation ritual into a fraternity or sorority or some other social organization. Nor as part of an Indian nation. Rather I am referring to an initiation ritual as a citizen of the United States.

For naturalized Americans the answer is quite simple. The naturalization ceremony whereby they legally do become citizens of the United States is the obvious answer. The participant will have completed a naturalization class and demonstrated sufficient knowledge about the United States on a test (now under revision). At the ceremony itself the participants are sworn in by a judge and surrounded by family and friends. At the conclusion, people cheer, cry, and wave flags. They may sing. Afterwards they may proudly hang proof of their citizenship on the wall at home.

But what about for native Americans? What about for the only people actually eligible to run for President? As we know, Republicans intend once again to make an issue of birth right citizenship for people who are born in this country. They would even go around the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. They would end that right through an executive order. Another example of people claiming that they have to destroy the Constitution in order to save it. It is another example also of people who do not know how the Constitution operates and think Presidents can do whatever they want as long as they are Republican. Why didn’t Mike Pence just follow orders?

More and more people are voting with their feet. They are moving to states and communities where they feel politically safe. There they can hang the flags they want, voice the opinions they have, and erection the signs of their choosing without fear. More and more states are becoming one-party states where one party controls the governorship and has a supermajority in the legislature. Imagine being a MAGA on a woke college campus or vice versa. There is no “come let us reason together.” Compromise means capitulation to the demon enemy.

In this environment it is all the more important to have a ceremony of belonging as Americans…if we still can, if it is still possible.

I am not referring to a legally-binding ceremony. The Constitution defines citizenship at birth. I am referring what religions know and have known for millennia. There needs to be a ceremony of belonging that signifies that today you are an adult member of the community.

Right now we do not have a “We the People” ceremony. True we do pledge allegiance but that is not enough and not everyone participates. On July 4 and Juneteenth we hear a lot about freedom. Obviously they are part of the American tradition. But we hear very little about “We the People.” We hear very little about anyone being part of We the People. We hear very little about September 17, 1787, when the Constitution was first adopted and with those words.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Where is the ceremony whereby Americans as individuals declare that they are part of something larger than themselves? Yes, the Constitution was a work in progress as even the Founding Fathers knew when they wrote it then amended it with the Bill of Rights. Yes, it should still be amended as challenging as that task appears to be now. But then again, how many countries today have had the same form of government for as long as we have? We should give some credit where credit is due.

Once upon a time high school served a roughly similar function in the American culture as a ceremony of citizenship. There was a class called civics. Upon graduation, surrounded by classmates and family, it served as a de facto sign of becoming an adult citizen along with the high school diploma. Unfortunately those days are over.

More is needed. My father used to tell me when I was growing up that democracy is a hands-on sport. And like any other sport, children needed to be trained in it so they would be ready to participate in democracy when they became adults. By hands-on, I do not mean physically fighting or threatening to as the way democracy operates. I do mean that students learned the skills and watched the adults in action as part of their training.

In elementary school for him, this meant visiting City Hall, sitting in the chairs of the Mayor and trustees, and conducting a mock session.

This process should be repeated as one matures in age and moves up the political food chain to the county, state, and federal level. And yes, for my father that did mean conducting mock sessions on the floor of the real House or Representatives where students debated amendments to the Constitution. Times have changed but the underlying principles have not.

Our government legislative chambers tend to be vacant most of the time. They are an underutilized resource for the civic training of the future voters in this country. It may be too late save the country from a “divorce” following the 2024 election and our country on our 250th  birthday may not be the same country it is today, but just in case we do survive and continue to exist, we need a full-fledged civics program to prepare future voters to be ready for the rights and responsibilities of being an adult citizen in the United States.

Program created by Richard Holman who participated in my father’s program as a high school senior.
Flyer is from last year.

Let the Students Speak: Bring Back Convention II, a High School Civics Program

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns (

Shortly after the Bicentennial, Bob Feinman, my father, created Convention II. It was a mock constitutional convention run by and for high school students. It was not about laws but about amendments. The students would propose, debate, and sometimes even ratify changes to the Constitution. The 2/3 vote requirement for passage made it difficult but not impossible for a proposed amendment to pass.

Convention II was held in Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives. The students for and against a given amendment would debate the proposed amendments in the various committee and meeting rooms of the House of Representatives. If the proposed amendment was voted out of committee then it would be debated before the full body of students. That debate occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives, a chamber rarely used on weekends. I am sure the tourists who entered the chamber and looked down were first shocked to find people there, second shocked to find out they were young people, and third shocked to find out that the speakers made sense. Again, for the students from around the country who didn’t know each other to garner support for their favorite amendments during a weekend of no sleep was part of the learning experience.

As reported in the Washington Post “Constitutional Parley Tests Students’ Skills At Lawmaking”:

Convention II, the only outside organization allowed to meet on the floor of the House, where participants wound up the five-day convention on Saturday, is run by Southeastern University’s Center for the Study of Federalism, based in the District.

The program was born eight years ago in the mind of New Rochelle, N.Y., politician and lobbyist Boris Feinman, who “got fed up and annoyed with the stupidity of most people about their form of government and how it works,” he said. He set out to put excitement back into learning the political process.

Feinman said Convention II is “an experience the students will remember for years to come.” It is not only an exercise in governmental procedures, he said, but a lesson in human relationships.

“We’ve got all kinds of people in there, from the coal miner’s kid to the Harvard-Ivy League type. But at the end of a four-day pressure-cooker session here, you’d be surprised at how these kids respond. They’ll sling away verbally at each other. But what comes out is a beautiful understanding of each other based on practical political dealings.”

My father’s hope was that a college in the District of Columbia (or elsewhere) would adopt the program. He did have some brief success with Southeastern University but the financial support wasn’t there and it was unable to sustain the program. My father labored on because for him it was a labor love. He believed democracy was a hands-on sport and the that the future adult citizens in a democratic society needed hands-on training and preparation if they were to be ready for the job as adults.

Over the years, my father had worked at all grade levels to bring students into the political arena where the sausage is made. In New Rochelle, NY, where we lived he brought elementary school students into the city council chambers. The students sat in the chairs of the mayor and council people and debated local issues. He traveled to the county seat in White Plains and the state capital in Albany before taking it to the next step and the floor of the House of Representatives.

One thing you quickly realize along they way is that for the most part these rooms are empty. Our legislators don’t have 9-5 five days a week 52 weeks a year jobs. There is always space available if someone asks and if the legislators are willing. Usually my father would begin the process through his own representative at the local, county, and state level. Working on the Bicentennial helped introduce him to other people at the federal level. For awhile he even was sharing an apartment with multiple Representatives who don’t buy homes in D.C. but room together to minimize expenses. I believe that arrangement still exists today. In any event, it did pay off and my father was able to bring high school students into the House of Representatives where they debated proposed amendments to the Constitution.

I doubt if such access would be possible today. I also wonder if the mock convention would even work. Security procedures have changed since then. The atmosphere is much more contentious now then it was back then – each of the two political parties undoubtedly would want to make sure that the student participants voiced only acceptable positions and didn’t support passage of something crazy. However it would be easier to televise the proceedings and give all Americans a glimpse into the level of discourse of which high school students are capable.

On the other hand, we have just seen that happen in the real world. Right now in a still ongoing process students are taking the lead where adults fear to tread. Death of fellow students has sparked the survivors to action in the adult world. They are seeking change and are politicking the adult legislators to affect such changes. Whether they will succeed or not is not yet known and what any legislated changes might actually pass also remains unknown. Still, this effort is civics in the raw complete with a televised visit to the White House with the President of the United States and appearances on TV news and talk shows. A mock convention this is not.

We also have had the opportunity to observe the reaction by some Americans to the sight and sound of these survivors calling for action so never again would such a massacre occur. We have heard that these outspoken students are not really survivors but actors. We have heard that the students are not expressing their thoughts but are reciting lines they have been coached to speak as if they were carrying cards to remind them of what to say. We have heard that the parents of the survivors who speak out have received death threats. We have heard that the impassioned words, emotional collapses, and call for change are all part of prepackaged show, that trained performers are dispatched at a moments notice to travel to sites of disaster to proclaim their anti-American agenda. We should realize that there is no “come let us reason together” between people who inhabitant alternate universes is possible.

All the more reason for restoring to civics to the k-12 curriculum. If Americans when growing up don’t learn how to talk to each other, then there is little likelihood they will develop that skill as adults. If all debates assume apocalyptic proportion as a cosmic fight for the fate of the universe, then no change for the better is possible. Perhaps watching our kids debate in the halls of power will become as highly watched as some other competitions.

There was a time once before when students, more likely in college than high school, spoke out for change. At that time the death they sought to avoid was their own death over there, in Vietnam, and not here in their own schools. The President responded with a call for more guns in Vietnam. He became a one term President who chose not to risk the wrath of the American voter. This time the President called for more guns in the school. How will the students react this time? How will the voters react?