Students slowly filed into Liberty Middle School’s gymnasium, silently waving handheld American flags that soon began to fill the bleachers.
As teachers, administrators, first responders and guests followed behind the north Forsyth student body, a sea of patriots began to form — the majority of whom were decked in red white and blue.
Though the overwhelming majority of attendees were not yet born when al-Qaeda terrorists flew two Boeing 767s into the World Trade Center towers, a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon and another Boeing 757 into a field in Pennsylvania, the significance of Friday’s ceremony was not lost on them.
“It’s important that we continue to build tradition and we want our students to become aware of what Liberty [Middle] stands for,” said Liberty’s Principal Cheryl Riddle. “It is patriotism; we want them to know what a true patriot is.
“It’s a sad time and because they weren’t [alive] during the [attacks,] we want them to understand how Liberty came about and at the same time, we want them to really learn how to serve others.”
On Friday, Sept. 15, the school held its annual Sept. 11 ceremony – several days late due to Hurricane Irma — as part of an annual tradition now in its 15th year.
Liberty, which opened in August 2002 as the county’s first new school post-Sept. 11, was given its name in the wake of the attacks, with the school’s mascot the Liberty Patriots – a mantra Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Richard Thompson encouraged the students to embody.
“What I’d like to do is mentally set up two tables here in front,” he said. “At these tables sit what I would call true patriots. Some wear a uniform and some don’t, but the good news is, you may have a seat already at one of these tables, as students. The even better news is, if you don’t have a seat yet, you can.
“This is not about self-anything. The mission is more important than any one person and [what that mission is] I can’t answer for you; that may depend on what level you dedicate yourself to your community. At some point, you may be in a fire fight, I don’t know – but the mission comes first. That’s what patriotism is, and it applies to every level of society there is.”
At one table, Thompson said, sit the men and women in uniform – law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, “military guys” and others who run into danger when most run from it.
The other, however, can seat anybody, from Joe Schmo to Jane Doe.
“You don’t have to be a first responder, you don’t have to be military, you don’t have to be with the sheriff’s office to earn a seat at this patriotic table,” he said, “because we just talked about the fact that the main requirement to be a patriot is to give a dang about someone other than yourself.
“The mission can be being a decent friend; the mission can be going into a fire fight where lives hang in the balance. But the standard is the same: putting others before yourself.”
Being a patriot doesn’t come easily, though, Thompson said.
“What I’d invite you to do from this point forward, whatever your calling in life is, I want to challenge you to work toward having a seat at one of these tables,” he said. “When we talk about patriotism, it has to be earned. Should it be expected of you? I say yes.
“At any rate, work toward having a seat at one of these tables,” Thompson said, “[because] that is a big deal.”