The recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia has me thinking about my Grandmother, Mercia Dunmire. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Monongah, West Virginia, a community framed by mountains and mines, teaching the children of coal miners and subsistence farmers in a multi-grade classroom.
As family mythology tells it, after noticing children coming to school hungry, Grandma Mercia organized an effort to feed everyone every day. Parents who could do so donated from their gardens and pantries, and older students cooked lunch, learning to prepare food and sustain the group by working and eating together. In the guise of a daily home economics lesson, Grandma Mercia’s students learned service and community, caring for each other as an act of equity. She fed others’ children even while she struggled to feed her own, racking up debt for groceries on credit at Manchins’ store after her husband died, sealed in a fire-filled mine.
Grandma Mercia was like that–she saw opportunities out of need and struggled to help her students in ways beyond teaching them to write and read. She filled my shelves with books, but, more importantly, she influenced me to be aware in the world, to see and struggle against injustice, and to teach.
In 2007, I represented West Virginia as our state’s Teacher of the Year, attending several events and conferences where teachers from all US states and territories gathered together to learn from each other and raise our collective voice. At one of our events, we dressed to represent our home states. Given that so many recognizable costumes related to West Virginia are caricatures grounded in stereotype, I wanted to choose a memorable and impactful way of representing our heritage and history.
I dressed as Mother Jones. I pulled my hair in a bun and donned a black dress and wire rim glasses. I carried a sign marked with her words: “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” I found myself explaining many times who she was, what she meant to miners, what she meant to West Virginia, and what she meant to me. Like Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones taught me through her legacy about how to be in the world.
Today, I’m thinking of Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and teaching in West Virginia. This week, teachers are picketing and rallying, closing down the schools, fighting to raise pay from 48th in the nation and for adequate healthcare for all public employees (myself included, since I’ve moved to the university classroom).
Today, our governor owes more in back taxes than a teacher will see in a lifetime, our state legislature refuses to pass a severance tax that could fund public health insurance, and a coal boss runs for senate with the blood of 29 miners on his hands; our world doesn’t look much different now than it did 100 years ago, echoing with injustice.
Today, it’s our teachers, red bandanas around their necks and holding signs, who are waging the fight, yet they are still caring for students, even out of the classroom: packing lunches, spreading word about how we can help through organizations like Morgantown’s Pantry Plus More who are feeding students while they’re out of school.
These are my thoughts and my experiences, but I know they resonate with other teachers. This is just my story, except when it’s not. I can see, in this moment, that West Virginia teachers are standing in the light of Grandma Mercia and Mother Jones. Whether she is a hellraiser heroine on the picket line or an everyday activist peeling potatoes for the soup, a West Virginia teacher is an agent of change and a fierce advocate for students.
And, at the heart of it all, is literacy. Reading is revolution. Writing is power. We must remember, as Mother Jones said, “reformation, like education, is a journey.” Teachers do the work of progress every day, in and out of the classroom. Especially in this moment, our teachers are educating us: these strike days are readings in civic literacy, in social movements, in what it means to be a West Virginian. The teachers walk the line, writing the people’s history, and we are students, all.
NWP@WVU Co-Director Sarah Morris teaches undergraduate writing courses and is the associate coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Program at West Virginia University. Her research interests include human science phenomenology, embodiment, writing process, and student-centered teaching.