Friday afternoon, Boone County 11th-grader Morgan Smith stood behind a podium in front of more than a thousand other West Virginia students and community members who were rallying to support their teachers and other school employees.
“I wasn’t scared, even though I was shaking,” Smith said. “It wasn’t because I was nervous, though. It was because I was so passionate about what’s been going on, about what I had to say.”
It was the first time she’s ever spoken in front of a crowd that size. While she said she was shaking, it was impossible to tell from the crowd, and her voice carried strong from the Capitol’s steps out to Kanawha Boulevard.
“It seems like they [legislators] aren’t seeing the bigger picture … this is our future, this is my future, this is my brother’s future,” the Sherman High School student said, answered by cheers from the crowd. “They need to stop overlooking us. They need to stop ignoring us, and they need to see what is going on.”
The rally preceded a march around the Capitol, where supporters held up their protest signs and shouted the now-familiar chants that have been echoing in the Capitol Rotunda for more than a week.
It was created and organized by students in Boone County through a Facebook event that quickly gained traction and reached others in all 55 counties.
“Why would I not be out here?” asked Lenzie Stiltner, a senior at Mingo Central High School, in Delbarton. “We need people to see that we [the students] are behind our teachers. This is something they have to do, and we shouldn’t be the excuse they [legislators] use to try and get them to give up. It’s not right.”
West Virginia legislators and national figures, such as former White House communications director Sean Spicer, have criticized teachers and other schoool employees for taking class time away from students. But students, Stiltner said, can speak for themselves.
“Having to make up the days over spring break and summer — it bothered me at first, when this all began,” Stiltner said. “If you think about it, though, we go home every day after school, and most of us don’t have parents that have to worry about these things. But the teachers, they take care of us for eight hours, or however long, and they go home, and this is their life. If we care about them, we have to care about this.”
Stiltner and her classmate at Mingo Central, 11th-grader Faith Stepp, said their teachers haven’t stopped teaching them during the strike.
Stepp — who is beginning to think about applying to college — said she gets frequent emails from her counselor about scholarship opportunities, deadlines and other things. Both students have AP tests coming up in May — dates that can’t be moved because they’re set nationally — and teachers have been emailing them assignment reminders, readings and study guides, so they’re prepared.
“Even though they’re out here striking, they’re still working, too,” Stepp said. “They’re still helping us, and the politicians should realize that. They [teachers] were giving kids food, making sure we’re OK. They’ve been in constant contact. They don’t stop caring just because we aren’t sitting in their classes.”
This isn’t the first time during the strike that students have organized to show support for their teachers.
On Feb. 21 — the day before the strike started — students at Charleston’s Capital High School enlisted students in 12 counties across the state to wear purple to school, in support of teachers. In the week since, the #SecureOurFuture hashtag and Twitter account @SecureWVsFuture they started for the “purple-out” have been utilized to spread information about the strike to other students, and even mobilize for events in all 55 counties.
“As students, our teachers support us all the time. They prepare us for our future, and they teach us what we need to know to get there. Doctors save lives, but teachers teach doctors how to save lives,” Smith said. “I don’t know how they [legislators] can’t see that. They need to stop talking for us and start hearing what we have to say, as the students who need education — and these teachers.”
Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at email@example.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.