By Elizabeth Catte
From the conclusion to 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, out now from Belt Publishing.
We all remember our favorite teachers. We tuck their small acts of kindness away in basements or in attic boxes: red-penned lines of encouragement, our worth acknowledged. We remember their handwriting and the wooden, waxy smell of their classrooms. Many of us continue to do good work in their names, and this is especially true of individuals who later became teachers themselves.
I am honored to be part of your introduction to some of our favorite teachers. When you put this book back on your shelf or pass it along to a friend, I hope you will remember them and how much they mean to us. The education strikes sweeping the nation are part of a large and unstoppable movement, but movements are made of people who animate our struggles and personify what it means to take action. This glimpse inside one movement has brought you people like Erin Marks, who collected donations for food banks during the strike, and Brandon Wolford, who kept the memories of his father and grandfather walking the line close when it was his turn.
The joyful and candid photographs of the strike, taken by Emily Hilliard, are an important record of this moment, but it is also important to reflect on what cameras didn’t see. The strike looked like hundreds of teachers filling the capitol, with Perry Casto chanting them hoarse, but it also looked like Karla Hilliard reading Hamlet with her students at a coffee shop and Mark Salfia sending that daily e-mail to his colleagues to remind them they were strong. It looked like Jacob Staggars running red lights to get across town in time to vote for the wildcat strike, and Julie Abel packing meals with her children so that students who relied on their schools for breakfasts and lunches would still be able to have those during the strike.
Tega McGuffin Toney, a union leader, and Jay O’Neal, a grassroots organizer, described the slow burn of unrest that ignited in February. That action came to us through the movement of workers in unison but also through so many moments, alone in cars or at kitchen tables, fretting over bills and benefits. Before there were battered signs and chants, there were clipboards, text messages, and public hearings. The question, “Should we strike?” translated to many others, heard and unheard: “What happens if I get sick?” “How can students succeed without skilled teachers?” “What can I do without this month?”
The call to strike resonated deeply in southern West Virginia where the rich legacy of labor organizing is personal. The past was there, in the sharp and cold mornings, when the teachers of the coalfields rose to take their place in a long tradition. “The willingness to stand is part of our DNA,” Katie Endicott writes. What did southern teachers fear? Not repercussions from an illegal strike, not failure: their dread came from the thought that refusing to take action would betray the living memories of their ancestors. When Robin Ellis, from Mingo County, had to teach herself how to sustain a strike, she relied on classroom pedagogy – she identified the strike’s rising actions and turning points, much like a student reading a novel – and her husband, a retired United Mine Workers of America member. Even coalfield students like Isabella Grace can tell you, almost effortlessly, what solidarity means. The descendants of the Mine Wars have inherited the Mind Wars. March on.
To enhance that connection, we’ve inserted small callbacks in this volume that make the past burn brighter. These callbacks are a portal to this moment and how workers described, here and in other interviews, what the strike felt like for them. When they reached for the alarm clock at 5:00 a.m., they thought of their parents and grandparents who worked in the mines and agitated for the dignity of their labor. When they laid on their car horns passing a picket line, they imagined their mothers and grandmothers doing the same during the 1990 teachers’ strike. “His hand was callused and strong. It felt like my Papaw’s hand,” Jessica Salfia writes of greeting a union member who joined them on the line. What we wouldn’t give, some of us, to hold the people who inspire us close again. But we remember.
In corners of classrooms are signs and artifacts from the strike, reminders of the unbreakable bond between teachers and their students. Daniel Summers’s sign reads: “Today I teach perseverance.” What is perseverance? The space between the world we live in now and the world our actions are helping to re-shape. One of his students’ favorite poems is Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:
“The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
What was the breaking point? For many teachers, it was the idea that without education, without students trained by skilled teachers, there would be no future for West Virginia, no family of things for young people stake their claim to. A corporation does not love a place; it does not go to weddings and funerals and baby showers. A pipeline or a gas hub won’t write your children a letter of recommendation or arrive at a school before daybreak to prepare and serve their meals. A tax break doesn’t coach sports or proofread a job application. And we have decades of proof that courting business does not translate into investment in education, only the opposite.
Re-shaping our world requires clear eyes as well as determination. As Emily Comer describes, the rank-and-file of West Virginia know what it is like to be bereft of powerful allies, and their betrayal cuts across the political spectrum. As much as the strike calls to us to make a blueprint of how this moment came to be, it also calls to us to be the architects who build something different. In Appalachia, we have never been witness to a time when people were as valuable as our extractable resources but our potential to transform this complicated place has never been greater. Because teachers and education workers stood together, and are still standing together in solidarity with workers across the country, we remember that our most powerful allies are one another.
I spent two days in West Virginia during the strike, overwhelmed and filled with love. We drove aimlessly, finding picket lines on almost every corner and blessing each traffic light that allowed us more time to wave and shout support. West Virginia University invited me to speak at an event in Morgantown and what a gift it was to share space with people electrified by their history, each of us imagining our connections to people in the past who marched, walked the line, felt the cold, and still pushed on. No one needed to ask what their place might be in this new movement. A reckoning had been called, and the people were assembled.
55 Strong is a brief record of those moments and how they felt to the people who experienced them. We want you to better understand the mechanics of the strike and the issues that compelled it, but we are unapologetically insistent that the most important thing you take from us is how good it felt to be #55STRONG. Other emotions populate the stories—fear, fatigue, anger, relief—but what unites each narrative, across geography and role, is the righteous joy of finding purpose and seeking justice. This is the lesson, these are the tools.
Such stories are a rare commodity in our present moment, and rarer still in places like West Virginia, where it feels like canon that each dispatch must, like thumbs dug into a bruise, make reference to complacency. No one knows the consequences of that canon better than teachers like Jessica, who worked tirelessly during the strike not only to lobby for specific gains but to upend the narrative about education to center what students and teachers deserve. “I knew from the beginning of this movement that our success would hinge on our ability to elevate teacher voices, to tell our stories,” she writes.
We agree. As the momentum for education strikes continue to build across the country, we hope that teachers in other states know that we are in solidarity and look forward to hearing their voices and seeing their images however they come.
You are part of this, too. You might not work in education, or you might live far from West Virginia, but you are one of us. If you are a person who deserves better, you are one of us. If you love someone who deserves better, you are one of us. If you can’t be silent, you are one of us. How could you not be? Take your place.
55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, is available at the Belt Publishing shop.
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