I spent all of my life hating West Virginia.
I resented the smallness of my environment, the repetition and the routine of it. I resented cold winters and humid summers. I resented the four- hour drive to the nearest big city.
I resented being associated with seemingly always negative census statements: low educational ranking, large risk for heart disease, economic downturn. I resented the media stereotypes of ignorant mountain people without teeth or shoes. I resented the way persons from other places around the world, even around the country, couldn't place it on a map.
I dreaded the inevitable question of "Where are you from?" upon meeting new people. I would say things like "I was born in Boston," "I'm a Swedish dual citizen," or "I grew up in Charleston," knowing people would assume South Carolina. I was determined above all else to find a way out. I graduated from high school at the end of May and a week later moved across the ocean to Switzerland.
Ten months later, I found myself in a propeller plane over the Appalachian Mountains, weeping. I had never seen anything so beautiful. The trees were green and the mountains kept rolling into the horizon, consuming my entire spectrum with an explosion of foliage and form. My feet threw themselves onto the tarmac 10 minutes later and stumbled giddily to the Yeager terminal, into the arms of my waiting family.
Since that landing I have smiled more than I have in all of the past year combined. And every time I smile, I swear that someone smiles back. There is no group of people on the planet friendlier and more welcoming than West Virginians. They spoil one another with their kindness. I was desensitized to it before I left, blind and deaf in the face of an exuberant, all-encompassing spirit. Every waitress calls you "honey." Every fellow dog-walker gives a greeting. Whether they are old friends or perfect strangers, they make me feel a part of this community. It is a homecoming like no other.
I spent the past two weeks visiting colleges. At every program for accepted students I was given a variation on the same nametag: Hana Glasser, Charleston, WV.
It was with West Virginia emblazoned upon my chest that I strode across campuses all around the country and presented myself to my future peers. Never once did I attempt to explain away my origins as I had done in the past.
Robert C. Byrd once said, "When I am dead and opened they will find West Virginia written on my heart." It seems that she was also secretly etched in mine, in the same way she was blatantly and boldly displayed in typeface on collegiate nametags. My mountain mama who molded and nurtured me, who set me free and watched me come back to her with newfound pride, who, along with my name and physical being, serve as my very definition. If you never leave, you can never really come home.
Early this morning I sat on my roof and watched a coal train rumble by across the Kanawha. The spring air was still and I was entirely at peace.
Glasser, a 2010 graduate of George Washington High School in Charleston, is currently in Switzerland and plans to attend Wellesley College in the fall.