It has become something of a local fixture on Boston's north shore, the brightly colored international flags fluttering atop The Greenhouse School in Salem. It's been called 'The school with the flags.' And when weather takes its toll or when they are down for any period of time, someone around town will eventually point it out, says Director Dan Welch. "Yes, I've had people approach me and say 'Danny, when are you going to put the flags back up. My kids miss them when we drive by!'"
But the flags are much more than an adornment, says Welch. The school began rotating the flags on the small cupola on its Loring Avenue roof over twenty years ago. Each flag represents the native country of a current or former student, parent or staff member. Given the school's small size, it is surprising that its community has hailed from over 60 countries over the years.
In fact, Welch is fond of saying that without immigrants, there would be no Greenhouse School. The school is currently run by Welch and his wife and co-Director Julia Nambalirwa-Luggude, herself an immigrant and a native of Uganda. "It's who we are," Welch insists. And with the current controversy swirling around immigration policy and the old flags taking a particularly fierce pounding this winter, Welch thought it appropriate to up the ante a bit with brand new, better and more weather resistant ones. To reassure the immigrants in the school community and beyond that its commitment wasn't, er, flagging, as it were.
"With the increasing attacks on immigrant groups across the country and in Europe as well, it is certainly not the time to be silent," Welch vows, promising that the school will remain fiercely internationalist in its orientation. Welch speaks five languages, Nambalirwa-Lugudde three, and the couple insists that now more than ever it is essential to rise above xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants.
The school's flag display was vandalized back in 2006, though Welch insists there was no evidence this was related to any anti-immigrant sentiment. As to the question of whether being so outspoken has had an impact on business over the years, Welch shrugs. "I suppose it might have had. I mean people say that we are like 'a piece of Africa' or a 'throwback to the old country.' And when prospective parents aren't feeling the international vibe, it is quite apparent. "Oh, yeah, we can tell right away if it rubs people the wrong way." Still, the school remains unapologetic in its pro-immigrant views.
During this same period the backlash was more obvious. The school marked the so-called Day Without Immigrants on May 1, 2006 by posting signs along with the flags, saying "We are all immigrants" in both English and Spanish. One passerby actually stopped at the school to voice his displeasure, wherupon he received quite and earful from staff. An unrepentant Welch explains "Look, this is who we are. You're not going to step to us with this racist nonsense without getting a lecture in world history and a lecture in human rights."
The couple maintains that they are teachers and historians first. It is not only because of their personal experience that they reject the new jingoism, but from a deep sense of history. Welch points out that ethno nationalism ravaged Europe not only during the Nazi period, but for most of its previous 1,000 years of history. He also notes that anti immigrant fervor is virtually always fueled by racist undertones. "It is essential that kids know about this, and US schools are particularly weak in this area." He finds it particularly odd that so many Americans cling to the idea of a white ethno state. "Think about it," he muses. "It takes a certain level of historical amnesia for Europeans to claim a white nation on land populated by one set of brown people and built up with the forced labor of other set of brown people."