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On Flag Day, Buffalo students learn about patriotism, Bruno Mars and Sarah Hinson

About 600 elementary students sat at Forest Lawn Cemetery, wide-eyed and attentive in their T-shirts of red, white or blue, anxious to hear about the flag.

Greg Johnson, the principal at Public School 54, reminded them that the colors they wore represented traditional American qualities such as perseverance, courage and innocence. He spoke to the third- and fourth-graders at the annual Flag Day event hosted by Forest Lawn Cemetery about what the American flag means. He even compared the students to big names like Bruno Mars, Drake and Selena Gomez.

"They were all eight and nine years old once," he said. "They were young, but they could dream."

Before the event, some students interviewed said they didn't know what they were celebrating. Johnson reminded the students why the day is celebrated, as he stood only feet away from the burial site of Sarah Hinson, the former Buffalo teacher who founded Flag Day in 1891.

Hinson taught or served as principal at all three of the schools with pupils in attendance; Dr. George E. Blackman School of Excellence, the Early Childhood Center and the Harriet Ross Tubman School. Forest Lawn has hosted the celebration for the last 10 years to honor the pioneer and give young children an early introduction to the meaning of Flag Day and its history.

Flag Day marks the anniversary of the Second Continental Congress' adoption of the U.S. flag in 1777.

Helena Ware, 9, with ribbons in her hair at the annual Flag Day parade and ceremony at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"I hope my nana is watching the news," said Lavon Garcia-Gonzalez, a third-grader at Public School 54, before the ceremony started.

The students had marched nearly a mile from Public School 54 to the cemetery entrance on Main Street and Jefferson Avenue. They were accompanied by representatives from a host of organizations, including the Buffalo Police Department, Hutch Tech Junior ROTC, NY Army National Guard, Erie County Sheriff's Office mounted patrol and a number of veterans.

The ceremony consisted of the singing of patriotic songs, a speech by a veteran and the Buffalo Fire Department setting flags on fire to retire them.

Art Picogna, a tour guide at Forest Lawn for the last eight years, has attended and helped organize the Flag Day celebration for several years. He said he appreciates the day for "showing young people the freedoms we have in this country, that will be a part of their lives."

Capucine Philson, a substitute teacher at Public School 54, said she was thrilled to see diverse representation within the flag holders, veterans and firefighters. She felt that it was good for the students to see America represented from this perspective.

"I think it's important that the kids see that the flag represents them all," Philson said.

One grandparent in the crowd said that it is good that the children are learning about veterans and patriotism. "I think it's about time," said Doris Smith, grandmother of Jarrell Taver-Hudson, a third-grader at Public School 54. "More people would respect the flag and its memory," she said, "if we started honoring it early on in life."

After the ceremony, the children seemed more engaged with the festivities. They marched up the hilly roads of the cemetery while chanting, "We have freedom!" and "We are free!"

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