Heather Pedini is a kindergarten teacher at Roy-Hart Central School in Middleport, N.Y., and brings history to life for her students in a unique way - she replicates monuments!
I want to highlight one such monument, with her permission, and in her own words.
“Thank you for inviting me to share my Iwo Jima sculpture.”
After last year's Flag Day ceremony at Roy-Hart Elementary, I was asked to bring my creation to this dinner (Veterans Dinner at Barker Fire Hall). I admit at first I was a little nervous because the sculpture would be seen by veterans up close.
What if it wasn’t accurate enough? What if they didn’t like it? What if I insult someone by it?
But I got over that because I remembered how the veterans who attended the Flag Day ceremony were so touched by the presentation, and the sculpture, that I became less nervous and more honored to share it with you.
I was then asked to say a few words about myself and what inspired me to sculpt this replica.
I was raised to be a proud American, to love my country, to be grateful for those who sacrificed so much for our freedom, and above all, to have respect for what the American flag symbolizes.
My grandfather was a POW in WWII and a Purple Heart recipient. Upon his return to the U.S., he saw the American flag and deemed it “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” From that moment on I knew I had to do whatever I could to show my respect for the American flag, and those who fought for freedom. I also knew that I needed to teach children the importance of our flag and our country's history to promote patriotism.
Instead of enlisting in the Marine Corps as my brother had, I chose to become a teacher. 21 years later I'm still a teacher. At my school I am in charge of our school's Flag Day ceremony, for the last 10 years. My inspiration for the 2016 ceremony was a trip I took to Washington in 2015, as part of the Patriot Guard Riders.
After the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, my husband and I toured Arlington Cemetery. When I saw the Iwo Jima monument it took my breath away, and I cried. As I continued to walk around the monument, I was in awe of the view behind the monument...the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building lit by the setting sun. I knew then what the 2016 Flag Day presentation had to be about.
I researched what happened on Mount Suribachi and created the sculpture of the raising of the flag, accompanied by a video that documented the raising, and I used real photos of different aspects of that part of our flag's history to enhance the presentation.
I read awhile ago something that has stayed with me...“I am an American and I am free today because someone fought, bled and died in my place. I vow that as long as there is breath in my body, their sacrifices will not be in vain.”
This past June, Pedini unveiled her replica monument, complete with 10-by-33 painted scene of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol building as the sun was setting.
“The flag and Flag Day are very emotional for me,” said Pedini. “My grandfather, James Simmons, was with the U.S. Army and was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. He was missing in action, and then a POW. He told us that when he came home, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen was when he stepped off the plane and saw the American flag. That has stayed with me.”
Pedini said this spring’s event was particularly poignant because her grandmother, Catherine Simmons, was eager to attend the June 14 event at school -- as she had for countless years. But the widow of James Simmons passed away on May 27, her 90th birthday.
“My grandmother was a big patriot and wore a flag pin every day,” she recalled. “This was always instilled in us.” (the flag pin can be seen on Mrs. Pedini’s lapel in the first photo)
Pedini always invites area veterans to her June school productions as a way of honoring them.
“Some of our fourth-grade students walk our veterans in, carrying 13 flags for the original 13 colonies,” she explained.
Pedini recently took some time to talk about her patriotic projects and why they mean so much to her -- and the countless children and veterans who have appreciated them over the years.
Q - How did this project for school start?
A - I saw a need to use my gifts more. I wanted to create something that was interesting, visually, instead of just having speakers speaking at the children about the flag. With the things I make for Flag Day, the students can come up and walk around them later. It’s more visual and I think that makes it more memorable.
Q - How do you make these?
A - Just about everything I make is recycled. If someone is throwing something out, I’ll take it and think I might be able to make something out of it. I sew my own outfits for this, too, and I never do the same thing twice, so I have a whole slew of costumes.
I made the armature out of PVC for Iwo Jima, and used chicken wire and recycled clothing and Styrofoam heads. I even used real boots.
When I am creating, I think about people. It keeps me busy. I think about my grandfather and grandmother. I think about the other service people I know. I think about the pictures I have of my great-grandfathers in their Army uniforms. My husband’s father was a Marine and we have his flag.
This is a labor of love. When I get an idea, I do a lot of planning, researching, get a lot of books, look at Pinterest and then put together what I’ll need for my next project and write the script.
Q - Do you do this on your own?
A - We have a committee. Our music teacher, Kathy Pease, does all the music, and we have someone who buys the flags for the kids and someone who does the invitations, for example, so I can do my part. Years ago, I also wrote age-appropriate booklets about the flag for Pre-K through Grade 4 and we still use them at school. My principal, Donna VanSlyke, is very supportive.
Q - How long have you been teaching?
A - This is my 21st year, and I’ve taught all different grades.
Q - What do the kids think about these projects?
A - My favorite thing is to see every single kid in our school with a flag in the audience. Some of them have flag hats on, too. My kindergarteners wear special flag shirts we make. I think the kids see this is part of our flag’s history and part of our history. Even if they’re too young to understand all of it, they still get the gist of the importance of it.
I get a lot out of this and I know the kids do, too. To see the veterans there with the kids is a nice feeling, too, and some of the veterans start crying.
Q - I understand the school displays quite a few flags on Flag Day. Can you tell us about some of them?
A - All of the flags used on Flag Day are mine. I own about 50 American flags or military service flags. I have a POW flag, a 9/11 flag, a 3-percenter flag…
Q - What’s that?
A - It stems from the Revolutionary War, when only 3 percent of the colonists fought against the King of England and won our freedom. It’s a Betsy Ross flag, with the 3 percent sign in the middle of it.
Q - In what other ways do you show your patriotism?
A - I have a flag tattooed on my shoulder in memory of those who died on Sept. 11, an eagle with an American flag as her wings on my calf, and I have a tattoo on my wrist that says “1776” and the words “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one,” the motto on the U.S. seal). My students know what this means. If someone doesn't teach them the importance of our flag and her history and patriotism now, when are they going to learn it?
Thanks goes to Heather Pedini for her dedication to bring history to life in such a unique way, for very young children and as a mission of The American Legion is to Remember, Honor and Teach, I am very pleased to see our educators helping in that endeavor.
I am so pleased that Mrs. Pedini has agreed to let me share her story with our American Legion Family through this submission.