After walking four miles of a 23-mile journey, Turquoise Parker pulled off her black Nikes to reveal socks dotted with small, colorful hearts.
“Every time I get a little winded, I think about my babes,” said Parker, 29, referring to her second-grade students at Eastway Elementary School.
Parker was one of about 40 people taking a short break in a shady spot off Olive Branch Road Tuesday as they made a two-day trek from Neal Middle School to the State Capitol seeking a meeting with Gov. Pat McCrory. Another group walked from Wakefield High in Raleigh.
But the meeting never happened and 14 people, including Parker, were arrested Wednesday evening after they blocked traffic at the intersection of Morgan and Fayetteville streets.
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The group of teachers, students and parents planned to ask McCrory for more school funding and Medicaid expansion as state elected leaders consider the budget. Other demands included guaranteeing clean air and water and programs and other assitance to low-income, minority and LGBT youth, including repealing House Bill 2.
“It’s a very difficult for students to be the best students they can be,” said Nicholas Graber-Grace, 34, who teaches at Hillside High School. “They need to have economic stability. They need to have access to affordable health care, and they need to have their schools fully funded.”
As the teachers made their way to Raleigh, the effort became election fodder for the two gubernatorial candidates.
McCrory’s campaign staff described the teacher walk as an attack by Attorney General Roy Cooper, Democrat gubernatorial candidate.
“The governor meets with teachers, students and families all the time, but will not be able to meet with these protesters sent by Roy Cooper to get on the news and distort the governor’s record because of previous engagements,” said Russell Peck, McCrory’s campaign manager.
Cooper’s campaign followed with a statement that McCrory planned to attend a fundraiser for Donald Trump Tuesday before Trump’s Greensboro campaign rally.
“By taking the time to go to a Donald Trump fundraiser while refusing to meet with teachers, Governor McCrory is once again putting his political agenda ahead of the best interests of our state,” wrote Jamal Little, Cooper’s campaign spokesman.
The walk was co-sponsored by Organize 2020, a group within the N.C. Association of Educators, which has endorsed Cooper. It recently released a report giving McCrory “F” grades in five areas, including funding for public schools.
Just before noon Tuesday, about 50 teachers, parents and others gathered in a circle outside of Neal and shared why they were walking, and what they were taking with them.
“The classroom sizes are getting bigger, but the spending amounts are getting smaller,” said Dawn Wilson, 44, a teacher’s assistant at Morehead Montessori Magnet School.
They carried with them pictures of students who had overcome struggles and students who were murdered. They carried thank you letters from students and letters from teachers who changed careers.
The marchers, many of whom wore red T-shirts, walked down Baptist Road and turned onto Olive Branch Road. They walked single file, or two by two, down the two-lane road with narrow, grassy shoulders.
As cars and trucks passed and the temperatures rose to about 90 degrees, they chanted, sang existing songs and made up new ones.
Many held up umbrellas to protect them from the sun, but Donald Parker III carried a branch big enough to be a small tree.
“The branch symbolizes struggle,” said Parker, 29, a teacher’s assistant at Estes Hills Elementary in Chapel Hill. “And to defend against dogs out here.”
The marchers walked about 11 miles Tuesday and spent the night at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh.
“As soon as I walked in, I passed out on the floor,” said Turquoise Parker, the Eastway teacher who is a fourth-generation educator.
Parker and others started walking again at about 8 a.m. Wednesday. They arrived at the governor’s office about eight minutes before 5 p.m., Graber-Grace said.
They called the deputy chief of staff Jimmy Broughton, and left a message. Broughton called them back, but they missed the call. They tried to call back, and it went to voicemail, Graber-Grace said. They sent a text. Then they knocked on all the doors, which were all locked. Then 14 people, mostly educators, formed a line in the street.
McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said the group initially didn’t respond to an offer to meet with Broughton, and senior education adviser Catherine Truitt. The group arrived after the Capitol building closed at 5 p.m., Ellis said, and Broughton and Truitt later went outside to meet with them.
“We found them with locked arms in the middle of a rush-hour intersection,” Ellis said. “We usually prefer not to hold meetings in the intersection of a main road.”
The protesters were charged with impeding the flow of traffic and resisting, delaying or obstructing law enforcement officers and taken to the Wake County Detention Center, where $1,000 bail was set.
Parker left the detention center around 12:15 a.m. Thursday. She was met by chanting teachers and friends.
She stopped by Denny’s for some French toast and arrived home in Durham about 4 a.m.
Then she went to Eastway at 8:30 a.m. for a literacy camp.
“I feel invigorated, I feel so great,” Parker said Thursday morning. “If you want to change something, you can’t just talk about it and be mad and angry. You have to get up and do something.”
Staff reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this report.