by Buddy King
What a glorious sound! Even now the words make me smile, fill me with a lift of excitement. We recently had a beautiful snowfall in North Central West Virginia, enough to lead to cancelation of the local schools.
It brought back great memories. It has been over 40 years since I last attended the schools in Christiansburg, but I still cherish the days I stayed home because of white stuff on the ground.
This statement probably sounds a little misplaced coming from me. I was raised and surrounded by schoolteachers: my mother, my father, my aunts and my cousins. This doesn’t include the many schoolteacher friends of my parents, particularly the faculty members of Christiansburg High School who were our extended family when my Dad was principal.
I was raised thinking that life revolved around the local schools — not just classes, but sporting events, dances, parades and plays. Pretty much like St. Paul Methodist Church, when the doors opened at CHS in the 50’s and 60’s, my parents were there, usually dragging me along.
I even remember my mother occasionally dropping me at the high school to be babysat by my aunt in her government class, while my mom ran errands. The principal, whose name was the same as mine, stopped this practice when he caught on, except in emergencies. Christiansburg of that era put Mayberry to shame when it came to down home charm.
Another reason to be surprised at this confession is that I was pretty good at school. I pretty much had no choice but to do well, given that I was raised by a coven of teachers. Being just an average student would not have been acceptable.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I did well through 12 years of Christiansburg public schools and 7 years of “higher education.” But my confession is that I never “enjoyed” a single day of sitting in class.
That is not to say that I didn’t have many wonderful teachers and professors, folks who not only gave me foundation and knowledge, but also inspired me to do better as a student and as a person. Folks to whom I remain eternally grateful.
But, I have to admit that I was not one who liked being in class. My wife by contrast was “one of those girls” who enjoyed sitting in school with her friends and learning. I endured it. She told me she was always anxious for summer to end and for classes to start. I preferred “two a days” (August football practices for those who never suffered through them) over the start of school.
So, snow days were wonderful! School holidays were great and summer vacation was filled with fun, but snow days were special. They often came without notice, blessed serendipity. Like a thief in the night, stealing away the drudgery demanded of another day of sitting in class.
For my first eight years of school I had a special connection with the “snow day”. My Dad was the decision-maker! He decided our fate. He was the Man! He was superintendent of schools. In later years, I learned that there was nothing pleasant about this responsibility.
It was stressful and nerve-wracking and required many hours of work while most were still nestled in their warm beds. I have poignant memories of waking up at four in the morning and hearing my Dad on the phone in the kitchen with the department of highways getting information or passing on his decision to the radio stations. I would often slip out of my bed and creep across our living room, trying to catch a fateful word or two from my Dad, such as “cancelled.”
Even during the best of times, my Dad did not accept cross-examination from me, and these were not the best of times. The wrong decision to have schools could lead to danger, the wrong decision to cancel could lead to public ridicule – “can you believe those idiots cancelled again?” He took this responsibility, as he did every part of his life, very seriously.
A strange phenomenon of the snow day, or more accurately the “snow day eve”, was that I became the most popular kid in town. Kids I barely knew would call and engage me on the phone, biding their time until they had the courage to pop the question – “are we having school tomorrow?”
Often I didn’t know myself, even if the fateful decision had been made, lacking the courage to have asked. These calls, mostly from older kids in high school hoping to avoid studying for tests the next day, some of whom had never spoken to me in their lives, usually ended abruptly with my father staring at me and saying “I need the phone.”
I gladly gave it up, not wanting to interfere with the process that might lead to freedom for a day.
These calls only slightly irritated my father, who controlled the phone in our house. This minor interference paled in comparison to that of the very early days of his tenure as superintendent when we had a “party line.” This was over 50 years ago, which as the TV commercial says, “is 2,000 in phone years.”
A “party line,” for those who never endured the pain and the pleasure of one, was a sharing of your line with another or others in town. As I was taught in law school, the use was “mutually exclusive” – your neighbor was on, you were off. You could get on and join your neighbor’s call, but you couldn’t make your own.
A difficult circumstance to say the least when you are trying to reach those who knew road conditions or pass your decision on to the local radio stations. No text chain or Internet message here.
Our neighbor lady who shared our party line, I’ll call her Julia, was loquacious and liked her phone time. As like most of Christiansburg at the time, she had been taught by my Dad and loved him. I can still hear my father saying, politely but firmly, “now Julia you have to get off the line so I can check on the roads.” She always would, but often after trying to engage my dad in some small talk.
So if you’re still with me you might wonder what I did with these beautiful snow days, how did I celebrate my freedom. First and foremost, I simply reveled in NOT being at school. I was like a wild animal caught in a steel trap, having wrenched its leg loose and running free.
On the best days, I would go sleigh riding early with friends in the neighborhood, trying to catch the perfect condition, a street that been plowed just right, leaving a thin glaze of ice, before the sun had burned through to bring out the dreaded black spots of roadway which meant peril.
The perfect times were the ones when the snow continued to come down throughout the day, leaving the promise of another snow day to come.
Of course these days were frequently interrupted by telephone calls or visits from older kids I didn’t know, and who wouldn’t have spoken to me in any other context, asking “are we having school tomorrow?”
Another memory of the snow day of my early school years was of watching daytime television. In the summer, this was unheard of – I was out in neighborhood ball games from dawn to dusk.
But on a snow day, after sledding, I watched reruns (recent ones I might add) of “I Love Lucy” and the “Danny Thomas Show” and the “Dick Van Dyke Show” (his TV wife, a very young and very pretty Mary Tyler Moore, propelled me into puberty).
This story pretty much solidifies the fact that I was not born to be an academician.
Not an ounce of intellectual in me. I loved my teachers and coaches (at least in hindsight), and I benefitted from the many opportunities my “schooling” gave me, but I was always like the fox caught in the trap, hoping for the serendipity of sweet release.