My Kingdom for a Flag; or, Your Kingdom, my State

My Kingdom for a Flag; or, Your Kingdom, my State

[No laws were broken, no ethics were compromised. Yet, I’m not at liberty to divulge the details. Like Dick Cheney said in 2001, it was time to work through the dark side, with sources and methods that can’t be discussed.]

“Dessverre,” replied the nice lady behind the counter. I didn’t need any help translating that word, her body language and commiserating expression were really all I needed. I gave her a polite smile, shrugged my shoulders and retreated to the door. Back into the Norwegian air empty-handed and without any leads.

Your state matters in America, a lot. Norwegian students don’t understand that political geography has so much identify and meaningfulness in America. Norway doesn’t have states, it is a largely centrally-administered nation – like most of the world. There are 19 “Fylker” in Norway, political divisions but they are more similar to counties in America than states.

I thought this would be easy, doesn’t the internet find everything you need? It seems to find plenty I don’t need. My plan was to use the internet to save my shoe leather in a strange land. I was looking for tokens of my time in Norway, markers of places I visited. I thought a collection of the flags from every “Fylke” I visited would make a tasteful and thematic display. I still think that.

One of my lessons/workshops for Norwegian students is on childhood poverty in America. In this lesson we explore the paradox that America, the richest country on earth, has some of the poorest children of any developed country. The American childhood poverty rate is 300% greater than in Norway. The students are nonplussed. The second surprise for them is the geography of poverty.

The internet was worthless for my search. Do you want one of 147 variations of the Norwegian flag? You can find that, but nothing else. I sent emails to flag companies in Norway, “Dessverre,” was the standard response. “How can this be?” thinks my American mind. Norway is a modern Nation and a technological pace-setter. Don’t they want my money?

In the workshop the students get a random sample of 21 American states (including D.C.). The poverty rate for each is listed, so the students need to pick out the states that are above average poor, and above average not-poor for children. Lastly the students shade in the special states with a color code onto an outline map of America. You already guessed what the maps look like; they are surprised.

Exceptional states for children: very high and very low poverty

Exceptional states for children: very high and very low poverty

While on the road, “Roving,” I was sure I would find what I was looking for. Certainly the tourist mecca of Bergen would be amenable. They try so hard to sell Norway there, certainly they are trying to sell of little of themselves too. While on an exploratory run through Bergen I hit the stands selling trolls, every manner of knitted garment bearing the Norwegian flag, and meat of curious provenance. No flags of Hordaland, the “Fylke” of the Bergen area. The nice Portuguese women running the stand had no suggestions. The tourist center was a bust. “Am I on ‘Candid Camera?'” I wondered.

To confuse the students even more I give them a second map, a map of America where the states are represented proportionally by population. With the same states and the same data, they draw again. Can you guess what it looks like now?

Population proportional states and childhood poverty rates

Population proportional states and childhood poverty rates

Dear aether, “CAN’T SOMEBODY FIND ME A CRUMMY LITTLE FLAG OF THIS PLACE?” Perplexidly John, from the state of Confusion.

Now, the above average poor states for children are still in the South. The better than average states of children are still in the West and Northeast. But now the tiny areas of the Northeast swell and the magnanimity of the West shrivels. Where’s Wyoming? I prefer the proportional map when teaching just about anything about America because the proportional map best shows where the beating hearts Americans actually live.

My routine for asking about a flag has developed its own ritual: hit up local stores already selling tourist stuff, ask the students in my workshops for help, beg at city hall. I started challenging the students to go into business making dumb flags for dumb tourists: think like an American, take my money.

Norwegian children don’t need to care about their political division, their “Fylke.” They are Norwegians, and the adults have decided politically that a child’s exposure to poverty shouldn’t matter on where they live, especially since children don’t get to make a choice about that. In America it matters, your state, especially if you are a child. And that seems morally wrong since children don’t get to pick their state. The geography of growing up poor matters more in the future of your life than you would imagine. For a child, the state is a bigger deal than the nation.

I got a flag! No, not a “Fylke” flag but a “Kommune” flag. A “Kommune” can be translated as “community,” and it lies politically between the city and the “Fylke.” Mine “Kommune” uses three salmon in a circle on a field of blue the symbol, a fitting tribute to the local engine of the economy and culture. It will have a special place on the mantel.

To contemplate the feeling of childhood poverty, I have students work with a poem several ways to internalize it. The poem is, I guess, the slogan for the Children’s Defense Fund. The students transpose it to feel the english, and then they discuss it. Next, they translate the poem into their Norwegian.

CDF initial translations

Flags are fun. Usually we think of them as novelties or accessories for an occasion  At military funerals or government facilities flags are used to project a greater gravity of the situation or place. But as Americans our reverence of “the flag” means the Stars and Stripes. Maybe we should pay more attention to the shadow our state flags casts on children?

After the maps are drawn and shared, and the other activities are done, I have the students translate the poem one more time. This last time into their own understanding of english. Given the very low rate of childhood poverty in Norway, maybe this is as close as they will ever feel to being hungry and scared.

CDF final translation

2 responses

  1. Boy, by the time you get back to the States I will certainly have a better understanding of life in Norway.

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    1. Yes, and if I am lucky I will understand America better too.

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