"55 Strong." 

A statement continuing to touch the tongues of teachers all throughout the state as they reminisce  on the now historic West Virginia teacher strike of 2018, which brought together thousands of teachers to the state's Capitol, uniting all 55 counties as one.  

Since the statement so prominently stuck with many, it is now plastered on a new book showcasing the moment in history, titled "55 Strong: Inside The West Virginia Teachers' Strike." 

The book, edited by Jessica Salfia, a West Virginia public school teacher, Emily Hilliard, a West Virginia-based folklorist, and Elizabeth Catte, author of "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia," gives outsiders an inside look on the historic strike.

While providing on-the-ground insights, the book includes essays by teachers who share their experiences before, during, and after the strike, interviews with allies protesting at the Capitol, and images from some of the rallies. 

Salfia, a current native of Martinsburg, recalls the editing process for the book being quick. "It happened and came about suddenly," she said. 

The night before the work stoppage began among teachers statewide, Salfia wrote a blog post for West Virginia Council of Teachers of English (WVCTE) titled "What We Deserve." In her post she highlighted the struggles she endured growing up with a single mother who was a teacher, and her efforts as a teacher today.

To her surprise, the post went viral; then, things spiraled from there. When Salfia was contacted by the publishing company that pitched the idea for a book collecting stories from "inside" the strike, she said she was no less than thrilled.

"The success of the work stoppage had a lot to do with teachers elevating their voices and sharing their stories. Teachers in West Virginia did a brave and gutsy thing, and preserving and sharing their stories of organizing, of bravery, of standing up for education is not just important for us now, but is critical to preserving our history and identity as West Virginians," she said. 

A school teacher herself, Salfia called the strike "one of the most emotionally exhausting and exhilarating experiences." She recalled lobbying at the state Capitol in Charleston, and standing united with her fellow teachers as they picketed roadside — all memories she cites in her submission in the new book.

Tega Toney, an Oak Hill High School teacher and American Federation of Teachers president for Fayette County, is one of the many teachers in the state who submitted an essay. 

Toney's essay cites her experience with her local union during the strike and how she believed the movement grew from the grassroots of the state. She explained in her essay how instrumental local leaders and local union officers were in their ability to "hold down the fort," and how engaged union members were during the strike.

Many say they look back on the memories of the strike as bittersweet. Toney said she can't alter that claim.

"I'm not sure that I can adequately describe how it feels to memorialize this event in a book," she said. "I'm proud of every school employee in this state and I hope they also feel a sense of pride and ownership in this book.

"It is written about them and for them."

Toney said without the tenacity, perseverance and solidarity of school employees, the strike — and the book born from the movement — would not exist. 

Although it was often tough to remain positive and focused during the strike, two factors guided employees to not give up, Toney added. She said it was equal part determination and equal part solidarity because not only did they believe in the cause, they also believed in the fight.

"We knew we were on the right side of the fence because we were trying to protect public education in this state," she said. "We looked to our left and looked to our right and continued to stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow school employees because we were dedicated to one another and to what we were fighting for.

"We refused to take a step back and refused to let each other down, our kids down, or our communities down. We all held each other up." 

Will the next stop for the book be the desk of students? Toney said she believes so, with maybe parts of it mentioned in the eighth grade West Virginia history textbook. 

While it is important for students to study the event and study documents surrounding the event, she believes the book could potentially be used as assigned readings in college classes as well because of the way it allows the voices of those on the front lines to be heard, while echoing the experiences  every teacher and service employee had during the strike. 

Toney said the book validates actions and gives recognition to every school employee who fought the fight. 

"But make no mistake about it: Our fight is not over," she said. "We have much more work to do and we will continue to stand up for teachers and service personnel, working families, public schools and our communities.

"We are just getting warmed up."

Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH 

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