A Stand in the Snow

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Polar vortex to bring prolonged, life-threatening cold outbreak to midwestern US this week (Accuweather)

I’ve been thinking lately about how I’ll probably have to write a multi-volume memoir when the time comes for me to do that, simply because I have far too many bad memories indelibly stamped into my brain to just gloss over those events in a chapter or two. I’m guessing that I’ll need at least one whole book to describe all the horrible teachers I had when I was younger, and right now I’m remembering how one of them talked to us about a week-long class trip that we were about to take. (Keep in mind that this was at a point in my life where the mere thought of being forced to spend more time around my classmates than absolutely necessary was enough to make me seriously contemplate suicide.) This teacher was so insistent on us making the trip that when I brought up the possibility that some of us might get sick before the trip, the teacher responded — and I can still hear the exact iciness in the tone of his voice as he intoned these words — by telling me, “Unless you’re dead, you’re¬†going.”

The irony here is that I didn’t go on that trip precisely because I did get sick just before we were supposed to leave, and as much of a monster as that teacher was, his ferocity was no match for Mom’s willpower. Looking back, I’d be willing to bet that I literally worried myself sick just thinking about how awful going on that trip would be. My timing was pretty impeccable, as the fact that a student who went on the trip sneaked some candy in with their luggage was apparently enough for this teacher to exact a group punishment on the whole class that sounded to me at the time like it might have violated some of the Geneva Conventions. Needless to say, that just made me even more eager to avoid future school trips, and I’ll save the gory details of how that worked out for another time.

I’m probably thinking about that quote from that one teacher because as I’m drafting this blog out over the weekend, there’s a winter storm warning in the forecast that’s supposed to run from Sunday evening until Monday evening (so it’ll be ongoing when I post this on Monday afternoon), with the potential of over a foot of snow, and temperatures staying in the low single digits (Fahrenheit) for nearly all of that time. As if that weren’t enough, the high temperature for this coming Wednesday is currently forecast as -11, with a low of -33 coming that night. As much as I knew to expect lower temperatures and snowier weather here in Wisconsin, this kind of forecast seems nothing short of apocalyptic.

Toledo isn’t exactly much further south from where I am right now, but if I were seeing this kind of forecast for Toledo, I’d go ahead and switch off my alarm for Monday morning right now, because there would be no way that any schools would be open in the middle of that kind of snowfall. The two times when the overnight lows hit -15 when I was teaching in my hometown, all schools and colleges canceled classes the next day. I’ve had to drive to campuses in some pretty nasty snowstorms, but there were still conditions that were just too messed up for colleges to remain open.

The kid in me still loves the idea of snow days, of course, but I have a much more complicated relationship with them as a teacher. On the one hand, they are paid days off, and it’s hard to complain about that. At the same time, though, class cancellations mean having to rework my lesson plans to cram in material that I wasn’t able to cover earlier, and that can be a real hassle, even though I build a lot of flexibility into my lesson plans for precisely that reason.

More to the point, I’ve always felt a tremendous amount of personal responsibility for my students, and their safety and security means a lot to me. What I have to teach them is undoubtedly important, but I don’t think that anything I could ever possibly teach them (at least in one single class) would be more important than not getting in a car crash on icy roads, or not getting a broken arm from slipping and falling on a slick sidewalk. There are things in life that are more important than classes, and far too many teachers (like that one asshole I mentioned earlier) fail to grasp that concept.

I understand that because college students are adults, the standards for closing a college need to be higher than those for closing a K-12 school. At the same time, lots of college students are new drivers, and I’ve always been wary of asking my students who don’t have that much driving experience to navigate treacherous roads just to come to one of my classes. More than that, college students also have to deal with a lot of other concerns, and I’ve already experienced how even short-term government shutdowns can wreak havoc on my students’ lives; I’m fully expecting that some of my students (and their families) will be devastated by this most recent catastrophe.

Making matters worse for me is that I’m dealing with an incredibly diverse student body here, and the variety of their experiences is nothing short of extreme. Some of them are accustomed to this kind of weather (or at least something close to it) in the winter, and even if they don’t like it, they’re probably used to just bundling up, putting their heads down and powering through it. I also have some international students who come from parts of the globe that never even get snow, and I’m guessing that they’re already freaked out just thinking about how bad things will get this coming week.

Back when I was teaching part-time, I always took a hit in my pay whenever I canceled classes for any reason; the only weather-related cancellation I ever made was when a windstorm knocked down a power line that made it impossible for me to leave my neighbourhood and drive to campus. Now that I’m salaried, there may be more of a temptation for me to cancel classes due to bad weather, but I think that just makes me even more wary about canceling classes, just for fear of falling into bad habits about that. As strongly as I believe that schools and colleges should close if the weather crosses a certain line, I know that I don’t have the expertise to determine where that line should be.

I know where my comfort level is with the weather, though, and looking ahead to the weather forecast for this coming week, I can tell that I’m going to be frightened out of my wits if I have to brave what’s being predicted here. More than that, I don’t know how good I’ll be able to feel about telling my students that they have to come to campus in those conditions. I can only hope that I, and the people who make the decisions about closing all the schools around here, will exercise the best judgment possible under the circumstances. Going on any kind of trip for school, regardless of how old the students are, should never be a life-or-death experience.

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