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The Power in Choosing Love

By Jessica Salfia

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despair seems easy these days.

It’s easy to focus on the seemingly unending stream of bad news, and this summer has been particularly hard--from the back to back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, to the news of the ever-growing amount of teacher vacancies in districts across West Virginia to the devasting images of little children in Mississippi coming home to empty homes on the first day of school after the biggest ICE raid to date. We are bombarded with despair.

And in the midst of all this, now it's time for “back to school.” Many school districts in West Virginia returned to classrooms for the 2019-2020 school year last week and many more will return this week and the week after, and every teacher can tell you, back to school can be stressful. For teachers, new policies and procedures, meetings, staff development, and planning and preparing for brand new students makes this time of year one of the hardest. Students will be nervous and stressed, some anxious to return, some dreading it. (And some definitely suffering from a Fortnite detox).

And unfortunately, we all know that in many districts, specifically the West Virginia counties that border Maryland and Virginia, will have the added challenge of numerous unfilled positions.

All these factors together make it easy to start the year mired in despair. It’s easy to begin to dread the end of summer, to fear the upcoming struggle and stress of a new school year, to allow the new school year to loom on the horizon like that monster from the Upside Down (c’mon teachers, I know y’all binged Stranger Things this summer).

And despair is paralyzing. Debilitating. It makes us want to curl up on the couch and stop thinking, stop caring, stop paying attention, stop fighting.

But here’s the thing. We are in the business of kids, which means we can’t be in the business of despair.

We are in the business of love.

All of us got into teaching because of love. We either love working with young people, or we love coaching, or we love Literature or math. Love drove to this profession, to these classrooms, and it was love that drove us out of those classrooms in 2018 and 2019 to fight for education in this state. It’s love that we wrap around ourselves like armor against attacks from anti-public education lawmakers.

It’s love that so many of our students will be looking for when they step into our classrooms that first day of school.

There is no doubt this year we will all at some point experience struggle. We will have to confront hate in and out of our classrooms. We will have to pick up the slack in our schools where there may not be enough certified teachers. We will get tired. We will get frustrated. We will get stressed. And who knows what fresh hell the 2020 legislative session will bring?

But, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

I implore you that when these moments present themselves, when you find yourself in the struggle, when despair begins creeping close around the edges of your heart, choose love.

Because choosing love is choosing to stay and fight. Choosing love is defiantly shaking a fist at every lawmaker and outside interest group that has tried to dismantle public education in this state for the last two years.

We do the work we do because no one else can. We do it because we’re strong enough to choose love. We teach here in this place of extraordinary contradictions because we believe in West Virginia. We chose love every time we walk back into a West Virginia classroom. We choose love every time we feed a hungry a student, plan a new, exciting lesson, or chaperone an after school activity. We choose love when we keep fighting the tidal wave of opioids unleashed on our state. We choose love when tell our bus drivers, cooks, and janitors how our school system couldn’t function without. We choose love when we lift up our fellow education workers and mentor young teachers.

We are at crossroads in this state and this nation, and it might seem very easy to sink into despair. But we are West Virginians. We don’t come from an easy place. We know that the dirt road might be a harder ride, but the view will be worth it. We’ve been worn smooth and strong by the rivers that wrap around this state, our bones are laced with timber and coal, and sweet creek water runs in our veins.

West Virginians are made of stronger stuff than despair.

West Virginia teachers have become a beacon in this country--a shining example of what can happen when you choose love. And because of our strength and the strength of our love, we’ve seen workers all over this country standing up for what is right, what they deserve--choosing love for themselves.

Take that strength, that fight, the echoes of the love we’ve sent out into world with you into your classroom or your school bus this fall. There is one way to really change the world, and that is to start with students in front of you. Choose love and get excited about teaching this year. Choose love and remember that there are kids in that room who have waited for months to get back to school because it’s their safe space--where they come to get fed, warm, and loved. Choose love and keep reminding state lawmakers about promises made, promises kept, and promises broken. (There is still not a permanent funding source for PEIA, after all.) Choose love and encourage your co-workers, organize, and stay informed.

But above all, choose love for those brilliant, funny, creative West Virginia young people who will fill the desks in your classroom this month waiting for you. They need you to be strong, to be excited, to be ready to help them change the world. With all the noise and all the despair that seems to fill the air, our students need you to stay and fight for them. They need you to choose love.

Jessica Salfia has been teaching English in West Virginia for 16 years. She is the co-director of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, a member of AFT WV, and the co-editor of 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers' Strike. She currently teachers English 11 and Creative Writing at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV.

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