It’s the first day of school, and there’s already a crowd of students gathered when I arrive.
I told the seniors to arrive at the Student Center by 8:30 AM, so that we, their class sponsors, could organize the flag carrying procession for Opening Ceremonies. Punctuality has never been the strong suit of this group, who I’ve known since their freshman year, and yet there are dozens of students waiting by the time I arrive, sleepy but excited, at 8:15 AM.
It’s one of Black Forest Academy’s many traditions, the flag-carrying parade that opens each school year. It’s always the seniors doing the carrying, and the flags fluctuate depending on which nations are represented by each year’s student body. This year, we have a banner 59 nations represented, either by citizenship or ministry, a fact that comes home to me as we pull flag after flag out of the closet, seeking seniors to carry them in.
I watch the seniors claim their flags with amusement and fascination. The earliest ones came for the flags from nations of their origin, which may or may not be the ones on their passports, while others snatch up the flags of the nations where their parents serve as missionaries. Some pick up the flags belonging to places where they’ve traveled on mission trips themselves, and some later students are content to represent continents on which they’ve lived, or the nations of dear friends.
I’m mystified by some of the more popular flags, students trying to decide how many hands can fit on the Uzbek flagpole, or who has lived in Italy the longest. I set aside Ireland and Czech Republic for girls I know will want them when they arrive, and search through the banners for Morocco and Afghanistan.
Searching for a carrier for the Austrian flag, I find the one Austrian citizen in the class, an East Indian boy who is already holding a flag.
“Don’t you want to represent Austria?” I ask him.
“Well, yes,” he shrugs, apologetically. “But, I mean, I can only have one flag. And this one is India.”
“I guess that’s fair,” I reply, turning around to find two girls from my small group at my elbows.
“Is that Austria?” they squeal. “Can we carry it?”
I laugh. One of them lived in Austria for a while, and the other simply loves it. I hand over the flag.
We’re taught early not to ask students here where they’re from, a question laden with answers that can stress out students in transition. I understand this, but when I first heard it I thought it our students were plagued with the feeling that they’re not from anywhere. This morning, surrounded by cheerful students claiming connections to 59 different countries, I realize that they’re not from nowhere–they’re from everywhere. Each of them could carry several flags, has several homes.
Citizenship, though legally important, can for our students be no more than a word on a passport. Their languages, their habits, and their hearts are the confluence of many streams, forming a gloriously complex river of origins for each of them. Their “passport countries” almost never tell the whole story, individual springs that are just one source of identity.
So which flag would I carry today, if I were a senior at Black Forest Academy? I look for the American flag, satisfied to see it held firmly by two girls who’ve spent most of their lives in Wisconsin and Oregon. Over there is Germany, my three-years’ home, balanced between a German girl and a German-American staff kid. I turn back to my girls and their Austrian flag, happy for a moment to stand with them beside this other home of my heart.
I’m glad I don’t have to choose today, but also thankful to understand, perhaps for the first time, why “Where are you from?” a complicated question.
When your identity is a river, who can say which stream is most important? With my students, today I can only say I’m endlessly grateful for each of them.