The call arrived at 7:12am, two minutes after morning Mass ended. Sister Barb got it first; her 90’s throwback Nokia ringtone echoed in the church vestibule. Then Father Edmund’s, the ubiquitous iPhone ringtone. My pulse quickened, excited, as they both put it on speakerphone: snow day. Before the automated schoolwide recording finished, though, my gut had already turned and tumbled and I was shaking my head, mumbling. Not another one. Sister Barb smilingly said, “Have a great day!” Bah humbug, I thought.
South Dakota can’t be accused of being unprepared. We’re allotted six snow days a year without having to rob any moments from sweet, sweet June. But by Valentine’s Day this year, we used ‘em all. So you’d think that with all this practice I’d have mastered the art of the snow day, but six times I tried and six times I failed.
The first snow day: I slept in, and then ate too many pancakes, and then felt like congealed frypan grease the rest of the day. The second: my self-inflicted punishment, I rewrote my course’s vocabulary list, wrote three letters, twelve e-mails, finished two books and went back to school the next day even worse off than the day after the pancake day. Snow days three through six: utterly lost to memory, unspectacular in every sense of the word, and not even unspectacular in a refreshing sort of way.
At the twilight of day six, though, something happened. Twilight, the time of day when I’m unfailingly either prefecting a basketball game, driving a bus or going for a run- since all of these were summarily cancelled, I read the news.
Well, reading the news wasn’t new — I teach a course in Faith, Service and Justice, so the news is every lesson’s springboard. But, embarrassingly, before that snow day, I had never let the news sink in, preferring to keep it at mind’s length: Read, discuss, move on. But, dangerously, on that snow day, I let the news sink in. I couldn’t help it.
Reading the news this time, I felt it all. My heartbeat accelerated. My palms started sweating. A giant weight flung from somewhere-out-there landing squarely on my shoulders. A few articles later, I sighed, clapped shut the laptop, and walked to the chapel.
It was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. A teacher and minister, with all my children out throwing snow.
December, January and February were very, very dark for me. At first I felt a sort of darkness: inexplicable illnesses, fatigue, etc… Then I could name it, and it is less about my political views than it is about my fear. I am afraid for my family friends, my friends, and my friends’ families. Each executive order or presidential threat–despite being unsurprising–seemed powerfully surreal and crushingly violent. From friends’ faces in Syria or Chicago, my mind flicked home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the faces of the students who themselves vocalized these fears. With two swipes of a pen, the Dakota Access Pipeline- formerly halted for an environmental review- is now promised. A giant drill is parked beside the Mníšoše, the Missouri River, poised to lay perilous pipe through the heart of life for thousands. When I think about it, I think of my students’ faces, their families’, all whose lives would be deeply threatened by a future leak.
But, it was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. Up until that snow day, my response to all of this darkness had just been work… and by that, I mean overwork: Overwork that doubled as an excuse to not read deeper. Overwork to not let it all sink in.
A clash of warm and cool air in the atmosphere took that away from me. A blizzard shut down the campus, halted my momentum of avoidance and stopped me in my fleeing tracks. The weather marooned me on a quiet campus with just the news, its anxieties, and my insecurities. So it all sank in.
I don’t remember anything about going to the chapel except that I did and that I left something there and brought something out: with this simple call to prayer, I at once confronted my fears and found the strength to keep working despite them. The next day of school was a great one. I saw the classroom anew, with its little hopes surging, its gritty conversations purging, and its collective voice proving that these fears are only part of the story… I wonder now if that energy was already there two days before, and I was just the last one on board, needing that snow day to see it.
My Bah Humbug missed something. These snow days were, in fact, gifts. But I had to learn their lessons–and I’m not just talking about the pancake situation. Now, I’m ready to forge boldly forward. God, give me another if you think I have more to learn. But not too many – I don’t want to go to school in June!