America debated an utter fantasy version of what it means to be a schoolteacher this weekend, even as we missed a powerful reality in the hidden hills of West Virginia.
The unreal version came courtesy of our fantasist-in-chief, President Trump, who — forced to deal with the crisis of 17 dead in a Parkland, Fla., high school after ignoring education for the first 13 months of his Fox & Friends presidency — tweeted out his Rambo-like vision of 21st-century "Armed Educators." They'll be able to stop a 19-year-old legally toting an AR-15 semiautomatic, thanks to a yearly bonus (money that is coming from … where, exactly?) to cover training them into dutiful gun-toting acolytes of a still-powerful NRA.
The truth for today's teachers was hiding in plain sight amid the Appalachian Mountains not too far west of Trump's Oval Office, where every public school in the state of West Virginia will be shut down on Monday for a third straight day by educators consumed not by the need to be packing heat in their classroom, but a desire for a living wage and the other tools they need to do their job.
Even if "Armed Educators" wasn't a terrible idea that would not make our schools safer, where does Trump expect to find the money to equip thousands of teachers with firearms and properly train them in gun safety — when a place like West Virginia currently pays teachers such low wages that many need to work in fast-food joints or other second or third jobs simply to support their families?
"I knew teaching wouldn't make [me] billions, but I thought it would be enough," Rebecca Diamond, a second-grade teacher at a school in Wayne County, W.V. , recently told the Huffington Post. She said she works the cash register at a Hardee's — for $8.75 an hour — so that she and her husband, also a teacher, will have enough money to send their two teenagers on school field trips. Diamond, a 19-year veteran, makes about $39,000 a year as a teacher — less than the statewide average of $45,622, which is actually shrinking and places West Virginia fourth from the bottom among the states.
Diamond and thousands of her colleagues have been striking since Thursday — shutting down schools in all 55 counties of West Virginia — for higher pay, insulted by legislation that would only raise their paychecks by about 4 percent between now and 2021. It's a dramatic story — thousands of strikers have flooded the state capital in Charleston, while others have set up food banks and other programs to help poor rural kids who typically depend on the schools for free lunch. And it's been all but ignored by a mainstream media that offers coverage 24 hours a day, but invests most of it on one or two Trump-fired stories, often the probe into Russia's election meddling.
But what's happening in West Virginia should demand our attention for two reasons. For one thing, it's a case study in how voters continue to be sold a bill of goods. In 2016, Trump won a landslide victory in West Virginia, fueled by his promises to bring back the American coal industry. But despite a flurry of new regulations meant to stack the deck in favor of coal and other dirty fossil fuels — even as the reality of climate change is pushing the rest of the world into renewable energy — there is no coal comeback in West Virginia, or anywhere else. Since Trump took office, despite government favoritism, U.S. coal has gained about 130 jobs. That's not a typo.
What will save West Virginia in the 21st century? Good schools, that will prepare kids for a very different economy than their parents'. But because of the huge teacher pay gap, well-trained educators are leaving for jobs in neighboring states like Ohio or Pennsylvania, where they can earn $12,000 to $15,000 a year more to support their own families. Like many other states, West Virginia's GOP-led legislature is much more focused on regulatory and tax breaks for Big Energy than properly funding the public schools. But lack of resources for schools is a problem everywhere. Across Pennsylvania, teachers spend hundreds of dollars a year or more out of their own pockets to buy everyday supplies for their classrooms that cash-strapped districts aren't able to provide.
Which brings us to the other big phenomenon taking place almost completely off the radar screen. That would be the American people trying to take back the debate about inequality and unfairness in American society that was rising throughout the 2010s, only to be starved for oxygen by Trump and his stranglehold on setting the terms of what the media has covered in Trump's America, and what it doesn't. Do you remember the days of Occupy Wall Street and "We are the 99 percent!"? It wasn't that long ago. And the fact that the broader economy has improved in the second half of this decade shouldn't obscure the fact that the benefits of recovery flowed unevenly to the top 1 percent — and that was before the Republican tax bill written to widen the gap even further.
The causes that consumed the left and a growing number of moderates in 2017 — the so-called Trump Resistance, the Women's March — are still here, but increasingly energy is flowing back toward an agenda that is not set by the president and his warped Twitter feed. At the same moment that teachers were walking the picket line in West Virginia, thousands of labor activists were on the march here in Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, calling on the government to #UnrigTheSystem against the American worker.
"We just want a piece of the pie," said Keenan Field, a shop steward for unionized food workers in the Philadelphia region. The backdrop to the protests is another little-noticed story, a looming Supreme Court ruling that — thanks to the clout of new Justice Neil Gorsuch, the right-wing Trump-appointed jurist for whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell subverted the Constitution for an entire year — could further diminish the clout of labor unions, which were once the bulwark against income inequality.
The outlines for 2018 are starting to take shape. The people are fighting to take back the American conversation for things that actually matter to the people, and not to the political establishment. It is a movement that is drawing much of its energy from the young — from the teenagers in Parkland, who are taking back the gun debate from their nonsensical arm-the-teachers elders and achieving things that didn't seem possible less than two weeks ago. Already, we are seeing the unchallenged power of the NRA beginning to melt in front of our eyes, as Americans are refusing to do business with the corporations that once did business with the gun lobby.
And that's just the beginning. Here in Pennsylvania, everyday citizens frustrated by gerrymandered lawmakers who won't respond to their needs undertook the audacious strategy of taking their case to the courts — and won. There is increasing optimism — not just here in the Keystone State, but around the nation — that we are less than nine months away from electing a brand new Congress and state lawmakers who will start to fight for giving people what they need. Living wages. Fairness for middle-class workers. And resources for our schools, not more firearms.