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Jason Brinkley, right, listens as Doris Estes gives a presentation as Betsy Ross at Cowart Elementary School in Athens.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Jason Brinkley, right, listens as Doris Estes gives a presentation as Betsy Ross at Cowart Elementary School in Athens.

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Giving lessons
on liberty

Betsy Ross, death penalty foe
shine light on Constitution

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

Betsy Ross and a death penalty opponent spoke in Athens this week.

That may sound like an odd pairing.

Huntsville attorney Bruce Gardner spoke Monday about the death penalty during an event at Athens State University.

Betsy Ross spoke Wednesday to Cowart Elementary second-graders about sewing the country's flag.

That combination of speakers isn't as strange as it first sounds once it's known that this is Constitution Week, a time to increase the public's understanding and knowledge of the document and that period in history.

A living document

"This is a living, breathing document that our founders fashioned to meet our changing times and the will of the people," Gardner said.

Gardner wanted to implore his audience to question what he calls a lack of standards applied to death penalty procedures. For example, Alabama is the only state that allows an elected judge to override a jury's recommendation for life without parole and sentence a defendant to death.

He said the application of the death penalty has more to do with a person's race and place, meaning where a defendant lives. To debate such a controversial topic, the public must have knowledge of the Constitution and politics.

"It's astounding to me when I speak at high schools the lack of depth of understanding of government functions and constitutional issues," Gardner said.

A National Constitution Center study from 1998 showed that teenagers scored higher in their knowledge of pop culture than civics. More knew where the cartoon character Bart Simpson lives than where the Constitution was written.

"Now if Bart Simpson recited the preamble to our Constitution or wore it on a shirt, more kids would know it," said Pat Lewis, a member of the John Wade Keyes Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The chapter arranged Betsy Ross' visit at Cowart to bring history to life and to lay the foundation for future civics lessons. In addition to her history lesson, Betsy Ross gave students a copy of the preamble so they could read it aloud with their teachers.

Second-grade teacher Karen Warren said her students cannot comprehend the significance of the Constitution, but they can learn about that period of history.

"We want them to have a sense of patriotism, of citizenship, and to know that America is an important country because of the freedoms we have been given," Warren said. "They learn the Pledge of Allegiance and help conduct a program for Veterans Day and that they need to stand for the national anthem."

When Betsy Ross asked students what she was famous for, second-grader Jason Brinkley said, "George Washington asked her to sew a flag, but she didn't know if she could do it."

Jason then added, "But she sewed it pretty good."

Betsy Ross asked who accompanied Washington on this secret visit to ask her to sew the flag, and one student uttered, "George Bush."

"No, this was way before his time," Betsy Ross corrected.

The answer is Robert Morris and Col. George Ross, her late husband's uncle.

When Betsy Ross mixed cutouts of stars and red and white stripes in a box and then unveiled a flag with a circle of 13 stars, some students yelled, "It's magic."

Others denied that it was magical, while one skeptical youngster questioned, "Did you get that from our cafeteria?"

Local DAR member Ann Crutcher said despite some of the comical answers, the program will help the students remember the lesson.

"Kids tend to remember what they can see and hear," she said.

Gardner said schools need to do more to stress civics and knowledge of the Constitution.

"There is so much focus on math and science scores, and while important, that has nothing to do with how we live in society," Gardner said. "Testing on math and science won't save this country."

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