Awesome. Exhilarating. Refreshing.
These adjectives and others are how Eastern Wayne High School teacher and community activist Mark Colebrook describes this week's March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh.
Thousands of educators from across the state gathered Wednesday to protest for higher wages and a stronger commitment from state legislators on public education.
The rally, organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators, drew in an estimated 19,000 people, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. Colebrook said that seeing so many people there, almost all wearing the red shirts which have quickly become emblematic of the movement, was a "sight to see."
"What it meant to me is that the teachers have finally had enough, and this is the first time that I can honestly say that we've been together on issues," he said.
"This thing really kind of started on a grassroots level, you know, with a Facebook post and a group saying 'hey let's do it,' and probably within three days, Wayne County public school system had to close down."
That closure came as hundreds of Wayne County Public Schools employees called off for the day. Out of the 1,754 teachers and support staff employed by the district, 960 had requested leave for Wednesday as of 8:30 that morning, according to WCPS spokesman Ken Derksen. Superintendent Michael Dunsmore made the decision to close school on May 10, after the number of leave requests surpassed 300.
Colebrook estimated that around 300 WCPS employees attended the rally, though the true number is unknown.
While Colebrook, who lives in Dunn, drove himself to the rally, several teachers from Wayne County traveled together in a bus which left from the Rosewood Walmart at 7 a.m.
Aboard that bus was Donna Amos, an art teacher who has been in the profession since 1981. Amos, who teaches at Spring Creek Elementary, said that the discussion around school funding is particularly personal for arts teachers.
"We're the first ones, if funds are going to get cut. And it was definitely in the paper three weeks to a month ago that the school board was saying that low-performing schools may have to let the arts and music go," she said. "I just felt like I needed to give my voice as A, an art teacher and B, an art teacher who spent, I just turned in an $80 expense report for glue sticks. I'm constantly out buying stuff and just giving it away. I just felt like I needed to give a voice for our children and a voice for the arts."
Amos admitted that large-scale public demonstration was not exactly something she had done before. The atmosphere was energetic and exciting, she said, and she felt encouraged by the way educators had come together.
"I had never done anything like this, to this extreme, and it was just red everywhere," she said. "It was exciting, it was impressive. I felt empowered because we were all together for a cause, to make sure that all of our programs were being considered and all of our rights were being considered."
Marchers met briefly with lawmakers as the General Assembly convened for its opening day. The actual sessions lasted only minutes, as legislators left the chamber as chants broke out among protesters in the galleries above.
Colebrook, the founder of Operation Unite Goldsboro, said that he hopes to see a new level of teacher activism in North Carolina and Wayne County following the rally.
"My hope is that, in every county, this is only the beginning step. I know that the NCAE -- at that level -- it is the beginning step," he said. "There might be some teachers at the city council next week as they go over their budget, because we'd like to make sure there are some provisions in there, and we know that on June 5, the county commissioners are taking a look at their budget. Don't be surprised to see teachers there."