By Amy Bode
A war-torn American flag hangs behind Mr. Ross VanDerBill’s desk. Once vibrant and proud, and a symbol of freedom and democracy, the flag is now old, faded, and tattered. But the flag, which was once hoisted above Mr. VanDerBill’s army base in Iraq, not only tells part of our nation’s history, but also Mr. VanDerBill’s story.
It only lasted a week before the sand and wind frayed the ends and the harsh desert elements faded the red, white and blue. “That flag,” Mr. VanDerBill says, pausing for just a moment, “it should be destroyed because it’s so torn up. But it’s a symbol of our nation and my contribution to my nation. I was proud it take it home.”
His uniform hangs on a hook in the back of his seventh grade social studies classroom. “The boys especially like to snoop around and look at it,” he says. “They always have a ton of questions.”
He welcomes questions from curious students. In fact, he encourages questions. “Living the actual history, gave me an appreciation for history,” he says. “In my classroom we look at the ugliness of humanity. It’s the realities of our sinfulness that we wrestle with and how our faith should guide us.”
It’s this blending of faith and history and how Christians can learn from past atrocities that help shape his seventh grade social studies curriculum. “I want my kids to turn to the Bible to figure everything out,” he says. “I want them to process everything through their faith.”
Mr. VanDerBill never imagined that the Middle East would be woven into his personal story. As a freshman at Dordt College in Pella, Iowa, VanDerBill joined the National Guard. Not only did it physically and mentally challenge him, but it helped ease the financial burden of his college tuition. He never actually thought he’d land in a war zone. But that same year, the United States invaded Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom was in full swing.
As Americans watched the conflict in Iraq unfold from the safety of their living rooms, VanDerBill knew he’d be called to serve. But he hoped he could at least finish college. But by the end of his junior year, when he was only 22-years-old, he got word that he was being shipped out.
“It was devastating at the time,” VanDerBill admits. “I had to drop out of college and say goodbye to all my family and friends.”
He was only supposed to be gone for a year.
But with any war, there’s no timeline. No end date. And with a civil war crippling Iraq, then President George W. Bush ordered an American troop surge. VanDerBill was ordered to stay in the Middle East. “I had to rely on God for protection every day,” he says. “It impacted my faith and my prayer life. And it helped define me as a believer.”
Once he returned stateside, he was able to finish his college degree. He’d always envisioned himself teaching history in a public high school. But he couldn’t find a job. He almost gave up looking for a teaching job completely.
Then he saw an ad for a middle school social studies teacher at Timothy Christian Schools. Instantly, he knew he belonged at Timothy. “I’d been looking for a job for over two and a half years,” he says. “When I saw the job for teaching at Timothy in the middle school, I had this sense of peace. I always felt like it was one of those moments that God was whispering in my ear, that he had this set up for me.”
Mr. VanDerBill found his niche in middle school “My personality works with middle school students,” he says. “They are quirky, but they are a lot of fun. I love to see the difference on the first day of school versus the last day. Seventh grade is a year where they mature so much physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
Teaching and mentoring young students is Mr. VanDerBill’s calling and passion. But teaching in a Christian environment has given him the opportunity to instill Christian principals and moral codes into each lesson.
“I talk about current events,” he says. “But the Bible is the lens in which we should view everything through. I try to develop the faith of my students as we look at the history of the world.”
And the flag, the one that once proudly flew over an army base, hangs mildly behind his desk. But if students ask, VanDerBill will tell them his story. A story of a young man, who left his friends and family to serve his country on foreign soil. But it was there—during a civil war—where his faith was stretched and tested and ultimately grew. And eventually, he was able to come home safely, proudly carrying that flag, forever serving as a reminder of God’s providence and faithfulness to him and throughout history.