Every morning as a child, I stood by my desk in school, placed my hand over my heart, and said the pledge of allegiance to an American flag that had 48 stars.
I am old enough to remember when Alaska and Hawaii were added, as the 49th and 50th states (and also old enough to forget which is which). I also remember how weird that was. Even though I was in south Florida, at the very bottom tip of the United States, every single state was connected -- to each other, and by extension, to me. It seemed unthinkable that our country could overnight include two new states -- dangling out there with nothing to do with the rest of us in the real United States.
Alaska was closer to the North Pole than to Florida. And what was up there anyway, other than snow and Eskimos living in igloos? What did we need Alaska for?. If they wanted to be part of another country, I thought, they should just ask Canada. At least the two places were attached, and Canadians spoke English.
Even stranger was Hawaii. That wasn't attached to anything. Hawaii was floating out there in the middle of the ocean. And it was filled with pineapple and hula dancers in grass skirts -- it was exotic, not remotely American. What in the world was Hawaii doing as a state? It didn't even look like a state. When we studied geography, we would trace the outline of maps. These new states didn't look normal like Colorado or Utah. My own home state was oddly shaped, but at least I could draw something that resembled Florida. How would I ever possibly trace Hawaii?
But most of all, what confounded me was the flag. I was on the school safety patrol, and I had been taught the proper way to handle the flag, raise it up on the flagpole, and fold it. I was taught to respect it. And now, I worried about it. What would happen to the American flag?
I knew the story of Betsy Ross, what the stars and stripes stood for. By then, I also knew the multiplication tables. 48 stars equaled 6 X 8 stars, which fell into a nice neat symmetrical pattern. 50 was a round number but it wouldn't make a good design. 5 X 10 stars would make a narrow rectangle, not the blue shape we already had. Allowing these 2 new states into the union was not only changing the entire concept of what I knew as America, but it was even spoiling the flag.
I was relieved when some very smart people figured out a new way to rearrange the stars so they still fit nicely into the blue part -- and I got used to it. As I grew up, adding those new states made sense, in a country that could embrace diversity and differences.
My children, along with everyone born after 1959, never knew any other flag. They've been to Alaska and Hawaii, and seen that hula dancers and Eskimos are "real" Americans too. Just like we are. My children also assume that Martin Luther King's birthday is a national holiday. They never saw the drinking fountains labeled white and colored, as I did. They were born after the civil rights movement and other forces that have altered the America of the 48 stars.
This is the first election in which both of my two children will be able to vote for president. It seems fitting that on the national ballot for the first time are two people who represent Hawaii and Alaska -- those 2 new states, the states that didn't fit with the rest of the "real" America. Their place on the ticket symbolizes how firmly our two newest states are woven into the fabric of our country.
My children understand the historic significance of this election, but it's an accepted part of the America they know to elect a black president ( or a female vice president). For them, the American flag has always had 50 stars. It looks right. And 50 stars looks right to me, too.