Fifth graders at East Lake Elementary take flag etiquette, responsibility seriously

Massi Taylor, Juan Lucas Bautista, Tai Hall and Bryan Rocha, from left, take down the flag Wednesday at East Lake Elementary School.

At 3 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, there's a ripple of calm amid the chaos of the bus line outside East Lake Elementary School.

Between teachers trying to wrangle darting students and parents whisking their kids away, there's a line of four fifth-grade boys with their game faces on. They've got a job to do. School's out; the day is done, which means it's time for Old Glory to come down.

This past Wednesday, like clockwork, the young contingent assembled. There was Tai Hall, on halyard duty. He runs the flag up and down the pole. Behind him was Juan Lucas Bautista, the flag bearer. It's his job to carry the flag in a wadded-up ball close to his chest, and to never, ever let it touch the ground. There was Bryan Rocha, the snap man, who clips and unclips the flag. And there was Maasi Taylor, the leader, calling the formation's commands.

"Detail, march," Maasi instructed.

The boys wove in a line through parked cars and students toward the island patch that holds the flagpole. They assumed their positions around it.

"Detail, halt," said Maasi.

They set about their work as if it was a time trial. Tai undid the knot on the halyard. The wind whipped the flag and the rope, giving him some trouble at first, but he soon steadied it, and the flag lowered. The large flag eclipsed the outstretched arms of Maasi and Juan as they scrambled to rein it in. Once the flag was corralled, Bryan's hands flew among the folds for the grommets.

photo Tai Hall, Bryan Rocha, Juan Lucas Bautista and Maasi Taylor, from left, fold the flag Wednesday at East Lake Elementary School.

Once released from the clasps, everyone wadded the flag up into Juan's waiting arms. Cradling the flag like a baby, he lined up as Taylor commanded the detail to march inside to fold and retire the flag.

On Friday, in front of the entire school, the boys and two additional members, brothers Ryan and Ronald Clayton, received certificates of completion from Bob Kincaid and Ron White of the Get Veterans Involved initiative. Kincaid and White, retired pilots with the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, respectively, founded the program last year as a means to provide honorably discharged veterans with a purpose post-military, and also to help mentor at-risk youth in need of positive role models.

The group has been in five of the lowest-performing Hamilton County schools -- East Lake, Calvin Donaldson, DuPont, Hardy and Woodmore elementaries -- this school year. In addition to teaching students to respect and care for the flag, the vets also assist classes with reading comprehension.

East Lake Principal Joyce Lancaster said that in the month the veterans group has been working with the flag team, the impact has been measurable. Lancaster said some of the boys on the team had problems in the past, but since they've been given the responsibility, they've improved their behavior and their grades.

"This is so special for them. They do it with pride and honor," Lancaster said. "They're role models now, and I hope they teach the fourth-graders what they've learned. We need the consistency to continue."

Tai described why he and his fellow team members do something that might not be perceived as "cool" by their peers.

"It makes you feel good to know you're serving your country," Tai said. "It makes you feel proud of your country."

On Wednesday, Kincaid had his last meeting with the boys before they would receive their certificates of completion. He brought them into the school library and gave them what he called his "hellfire and brimstone" speech.

"I'm proud of you, but it doesn't stop here," Kincaid said. "As members of this flag team, you accept a leadership role in this school. When you honor my flag that I fought for, you accept an honorary role, got it?"

"Yes, sir," the boys replied.

Contact Will Healey at [email protected] or 423-757-6731.