I’ve always seen myself as a West Virginia lifer.
When I received a Foundation Scholarship from West Virginia University in 2016, I was continually reminded by the people I met that I should stay here and help to better the state. I was convinced. Her people had completely financed my education, after all. I owed West Virginia my heart and soul.
Over the past few years, I was always one of those students who saw myself settling down in West Virginia and starting a career. I had visions of spending my weekdays saving lives as a doctor in the state’s rural interior or maybe sharing my love of books as an English teacher in my hometown. My weekends would be spent kayaking the Cheat River, hiking Seneca Rocks or watching the Lindy Point sunset. I was overjoyed to know I could give back to the state that had given me everything.
Now, I’m pursuing a master’s degree from WVU to be an English teacher. I’ve never been motivated by money. I live in a small, $450 per month, one-bedroom Morgantown apartment with my two cats. It doesn’t bother me that I’d only make about $40,000 as a first-year teacher — that’s more than I need.
I also understand my future teaching colleagues aren’t all in the same boat, though. Many of them have families to feed, with more expensive rent than me and student debt to pay off. When West Virginia teachers went on strike for better pay and health benefits in 2018, I was a supporter. The people who were instrumental to my growth in high school deserved the world, as far as I was concerned.
Now, fast forward to 2021, and I’m immeasurably, indescribably disappointed in our state Legislature.
They recently passed Senate Bill 11, outlawing the act of striking for public employees. Now, going on strike is grounds for our teachers to be terminated. How dare our representatives retaliate against them like this? As a future teacher, how am I supposed to feel when our elected officials tell me I’m not worth a livable wage and satisfactory health benefits?
How am I supposed to feel when the Legislature seeks to punish teachers for wanting a few thousand extra dollars a year, and yet we’re about to cut income taxes in a way that will benefit the immensely wealthy more than anyone else?
How am I supposed to do my job if Senate Bill 558 passes and I’m no longer allowed to discuss “divisive concepts” in my classroom? Shakespeare is full of critiques on sexism, so do I just have to pretend this sexism is a thing of the past and that the women in my life don’t get catcalled for walking down the street? I’ll tell you now that I’m not going to pretend racism ended with the abolition of slavery and that my Black and brown friends don’t get slurred on their social media accounts.
Will I be expected to sit quietly when my transgender students aren’t allowed to play sports with their friends because of House Bill 3293? What about the CROWN Act failing, meaning it’s still legal for my future students to be discriminated against because of something as simple as their hair?
Must I look away when my LGBTQ+ friends can be denied employment just for existing?
Am I supposed to take this injustice sitting down?
I graduate in a year, and I need to start looking for jobs in about nine months. Do you think any of this makes young people like me more inclined to stay? Do you think any of this makes my fellow teachers-in-training more inclined to stay? Why should we? Why would we try to make a place better that obviously isn’t going to take care of us or our friends and family?
It’s been the case with young people in West Virginia for years: We won’t stay.
There’s a reason young people have been leaving for so long. Until West Virginia starts to do better, beginning with electing representatives that value us in both words and action, we’ll continue to leave, and our state’s problems will persist.
And until we elect them, we must complain and protest and fight for what we deserve from our representatives.