I am no grill master, but a brat on a bun may show up anyway on my plate come Thursday. And although it has been many years since my family parked in the grass near the intersection of Route 29 and Millerstown Road to watch fireworks launched skyward – one at a time – from Grimes Airport, I will most likely pass on viewing this year’s display.
Instead, it will be another quiet day at home for me, surrounded by library books and sewing projects, the television running. During the course of the day, however, I hope to catch a glimpse of one of the many ceremonies across the country when America’s newest citizens celebrate their completion of a long list of requirements by pledging their Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
Until a couple of years ago, I paid scant attention to these events. It was when I began to tutor a friend’s foreign-born wife in her quest for citizenship that I came to understand our country’s naturalization process. She is eligible for U.S. citizenship because she holds a Green Card that allows her to live and work here, and she has been married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years – unmarried Green Card holders must wait five years to apply.
I have since worked my way through the website of the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services, which carefully details all citizenship requirements. There is the 20-page application probing every aspect of an applicant’s life, past and present. There is also the interview by a USCIS officer, during which applicants must demonstrate the ability to speak, read, write, and understand basic English.
Part of the interview is an oral civics test covering U.S. history and government. The test is based on 100 questions specifically outlined on the website: Who was the first President? Which war was fought between the North and the South? What is the last day to submit federal tax forms? What major event occurred on September 11, 2001?
As easy as these questions seem, however, there are tougher ones; some might even stump some of us U.S.-born citizens. Occasionally a late-night show host poses to people on the street questions from this very test. It is amazing and sad, actually, what some of us do not know about our own country: How many members serve in the House of Representatives? How many years is the term of a senator? Who is the governor of your state? How many amendments are there to the Constitution?
All of us, by virtue of the coincidence of birth location, enjoy the luxury of U.S. citizenship without knowing any of this information. Our country, however, is at its strongest and is best served by an informed electorate. It behooves us all to check out the USCIS website or some similar source to refresh our basic knowledge of American civics.
Amongst the picnics and parades of the day often referred to as America’s birthday, there will be speeches galore: by hopeful Presidential candidates as well as politicians from every level of government. Many will invoke the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers: the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin – among others – who made significant, long-lasting contributions to our history.
Today’s elected officials routinely refer to the work of these individuals, left to subsequent generations in the form of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our current politicians often give the impression that our forefathers sat together, calming dictating in orderly fashion to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who promptly recorded their every thought and word.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Declaring independence was a bold step, and crafting the supreme law of our country involved debate, disagreement, and compromise: they hammered it out. I resent those in today’s government claiming to be alone in following the lead of the Founding Fathers; they should re-inform themselves of the compromises upon which our nation was built.
By the way, I am also weary of those same politicians who insist on quoting their own versions of these important documents. It is important to carefully read these treatises for ourselves as originally written. The task is not particularly time-consuming: the Declaration of Independence contains some 1400 words with the Constitution – including all amendments – consisting of just over 7500 words. Short reads compared to the 50,000 words of The Red Badge of Courage or the 100,000 words in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Well, I have my schedule set for Thursday’s holiday. I will scan the news channels for at least one naturalization ceremony to proudly cheer the efforts that our newest fellow citizens have expended to officially join us in our special set of rights and responsibilities. I plan on rereading the Declaration of Independence to consider the bravery of our ancestors who risked their lives to establish a fledgling nation. I will also carefully read the Constitution and all 27 amendments, appreciating the sheer genius of a government plan still operating all these years later – imperfectly perhaps; noisily, for sure.
Later I will settle in with a couple of hot dogs and a bit of potato salad to enjoy the music – and, yes, the fireworks – of the 35th annual “A Capitol Fourth” on PBS, a tradition of my parents that I am continuing.
Happy Birthday to us all!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.