On snow days, even a principal plays

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There is nothing quite like a snow day from school. Even though a day off in February might delay the last school day of the year, pushing it farther back into June (or July!), even though it disrupts the flow of learning, even though when the phone call came this morning it meant that lots of kids wouldn't deliver their Valentines to friends on time, a snow day is a wonderful gift. A snow day is a treasure of unexpected freedom and possibility. That's the way it was when I was a kid - when there were "wolves in Wales" - and that's still the way it feels now that I'm the principal.

When the superintendent calls at 5 a.m., I start the "no school" telephone-call chain and then lie back and think about the possibilities: a walk in the snow, a leisurely breakfast, reading by the fire, baking, luxuriating in a day that is slowing to a pace set by deep snow. Meetings will be postponed, a little business conducted over the phone or Internet. The walk must be shoveled, the car plowed out and decaked; a few adult exigencies persist. But at the time I would normally be driving to work, my wife and I are walking the deserted streets of town, the dog scouting ahead.

A snow day is an echo of childhood. During my own days as an elementary school student, I recall eagerly listening to the radio for the school-cancellations announcements. "No school in the following communities ..." the DJ would intone, and then, in a time-honored ritual, read down the list of town names between weather reports and the morning's world news.

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"No school" is the only big news. At the first intimation of a big snow storm, every kid in town would certainly have been sleeping with a transistor radio tucked under his or her pillow, ready for first light and The Wait. Since we lived in a town beginning with "W," and the school-cancellation list was read in alphabetical order, The Wait was long, tortuous, and full of delicious anticipation. All good snow days start with the tension of awaiting the official word. It's similar to Christmas morning before your parents come downstairs and all you can do is look at the presents under the tree and wonder what might be in that large box with your name on it.

My childhood delight in a snow day derived not just from missing school, but from gaining a day of play along with the delivery of a fabulous raw material for that play. By definition, there will be a lot of snow; too much to get to school, but never too much to get out of the house and explore. A snow day is by definition a soaked-mitten-and-snowsuit day.

The day's assignment was automatic. First period: tunneling and burrowing in the drifts, rolling snowmen, tobogganing down Hurley's Hill, and snowballing crusades across the backyards, in and out of snow forts. The plows would rumble down the road with sanding hoppers on their haunches. They looked like elephants. They would steeply bank the snow against the fences along the front yard, repeatedly burying the end of the driveway all day long, creating more work for the snow blowers and more opportunity for us snow miners and Eskimos.

I remember one snow day in particular when I lay for hours in my burrow, cocooned in ice, listening to the compressed, polar silence at the bottom of the yard. A snow day is also, by definition, an igloo day.

The sounds of today's snow day could be lifted from snow days of 30 years ago. For the first few hours of the morning, nothing moves. There is no wind, and the snow adheres so thickly branch by branch that the trees seem to be marzipan. An occasional snowplow growls along, scraping the tarmac, its chains jangling like dog tags and its yellow beacon winking in the gloom. Then, slowly, other vehicles appear to make their tentative way down Main Street, snow tires murmuring in the soft ruts that appear between passes of the plow.

The mail must go through. Al, the postmaster, has arrived and parked in his usual spot on Court Street, with a report of the road conditions driving into town from the north: "Not too bad." We promised him fresh muffins later in the morning when we walk down for the mail. We hope this softens the fact that Al is heading for work and we are not. This is the forbidden pleasure of a snow day from school: seeing the rest of the world trying to maintain the usual pace while having a special, personal dispensation from doing so.

A snow day ends with a rewinding of the clock. Tonight will be last night. Today will be tomorrow, since the day's plans, suspended by a phone call at 5 a.m., have already been bounced ahead. And the wet mittens, boots, and snowsuits are draped over chairs to dry by the wood stove.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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