Every time I hear that schools are closed because of the weather, my heart goes out to all the parents. I sit eating my breakfast, no children to deal with, no job to go to, and I imagine the young families in their houses, the kids jumping for joy, the parents trying to figure out how to get through the day: who has a meeting when, whose meeting is more important, can the kids possibly be left on their own, and if so for how long?
I am transported back to the 1970s, in Maryland, when winters were still snowy and cold, and schools routinely closed, or opened late, or closed early. My husband commuted to a job out of town, so for school transportation purposes, I was a single parent. I had arranged for my daughters to attend out of district, a school close to the college where I taught so I could pick them up and take them to campus if I had a late meeting.
On the mornings when school opened late I would deposit my daughters in my office, give them the backs of old tests to draw on, and rush to my class. When school opened two hours later, I often had another class to teach, or a meeting to attend. But the girls needed to get to school. What to do?
I don\’t remember what I did. I do remember that in the afternoon, if it started to snow, the department secretary would listen to the radio and come and get me in my office or out of meetings so I could go pick up the kids. The worst was when school was closed for the entire day. When the girls were little I would leave them in my office with books and snacks and dire instructions to stay put. Sometimes I would find an empty classroom and let them draw on the board–as long as they erased everything before leaving. Meanwhile I would be teaching my class, hoping the kids wouldn\’t run screaming down the hall or get kidnapped by a student with a grudge. As they got older, I gave them more freedom, but I always worried that they would get lost or that one of my colleagues would complain.
There were few faculty children wandering the campus on snow days back then. Almost all of them were at home with their mothers, while their fathers got on with their professorial duties, undisturbed by parental concerns. Female full-time faculty–with children yet!–were a rarity in that bygone era.
As a result, I always felt divided: part of me was lecturing on the French Renaissance while part of me wandered the halls, wondering what the girls were up to. I would sit in a meeting and while the dean droned on about the dismal future of the liberal arts I would be looking out the window, watching the snow and dreading the secretary\’s knock on the door, telling me that schools were closing early. Winter seemed to last forever in those days.
So today on snow days I worry about young families–my daughter\’s among them. I empathize with that feeling of forever being mentally in two places at once that is the hallmark of good parenting. I hope that things have gotten better in a couple of ways. I hope that the burden of snow days is shared more by fathers. And I especially hope that employers have become more attuned to the tribulations of working parents. In matters of child care and the needs of working families, however, I know that we still have a long way to go in this country.
I hope that some day, when the radio announces that schools are closed, the kids will still jump for joy, but the parents will no longer tear out their hair.
I think there's a relationship for me between having that kind of childhood–in which the delight of a snow day was getting to play in a college classroom–and spending at least part of almost every year between 1990 and 2007 in a college classroom.
I hope you remembered to erase the board before leaving….