May is a busy month, filled with graduation exercises for children of all ages. We also celebrate moms, appreciate the impact of teachers, and memorialize the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. These special people teach us the values of selflessness and giving, determination and grit, love and compassion. May is the perfect time to reflect on their influence in our lives.

My mom taught me unlimited and unforgettable life lessons. Nowadays, I treasure watching my two boys being molded by the lessons they are learning from their mommy. My teachers helped me to develop and sharpen knowledge and skills I use each day. Moms and teachers build the foundation of our character and prepare us to be good citizens. In fact, I think they are the most influential people in the lives of children and the vitality of our nation.

Veterans are at the frontlines of preserving democracy. My grandfathers served during World War II and were both fortunate to come home alive. I treasure the many words of wisdom that they shared with me sitting on their porch or in their living room. The thought of losing them to war or conflict is difficult to grasp, though millions of families in our nation have experienced it. What better example of citizenship can there be than of those who died to preserve our freedom.

Citizenship is an ideal at the very core of our democracy. One definition says it is “the character of any individual viewed as a member of society”; another says it comes with “rights, duties, and privileges of being a citizen”. Often times we focus on, and celebrate, the rights afforded to American citizens. That is understandable given that our Declaration of Independence proclaims citizens are entitled to certain rights. And of course we all know that the first change to our U.S. Constitution was to add the Bill of Rights.

There is much more to American citizenship, however, than what it gives us. President John F. Kennedy said it best during his Inaugural address when he challenged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. American citizenship comes with duties and responsibilities to protect our freedom and to stand up against the threats to our democracy.

My encouragements to our graduates are to be the engaged citizens our communities need, give more and take less, speak out when you see danger, stand up when you hear the voices that seek to divide, and be the voice of liberty. If you don’t, your silence will be deafening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil… Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

No matter our position in life, everyone is a citizen somewhere in some community. Our attitudes lived out through our actions and words will contribute to the success, or failure, of the places we live. To enjoy the rights and privileges of living in the United States, we must accept the responsibilities that come with it. Citizenship is that important. It is a character trait that would make moms, teachers, and veterans proud!

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Dr. Todd Freeman is Superintendent of Sylacauga City Schools. Almost 2,400 students are enrolled in Sylacauga’s school system — Sylacauga High School, Indian Valley Elementary School, Nichols-Lawson Middle School, and Pinecrest Elementary School. Follow Dr. Freeman on Twitter at mtfreeman or visit www.sylacauga.k12.al.us.