Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Snow

(The M62 on Wednesday)

Autumn lasted about twenty minutes. We are in the depths of an early Winter. When I set off for school on Monday I was convinced this was a foolhardy thing to do as I made my way through a blizzard: surely the place would be shut? Not so. The area around the Knowledge College only had a light dusting of snow but the phones were ringing off their hooks as the hopeful rang in. "Is the school shut?"

A few colleagues arrived a little late. A significant number of kids arrived very late, too tempted by the infinite possibilities of snow play to take academic punctuality seriously. I couldn't blame them but it was interesting to note that the top sets were pretty largely full and the less able groups were decimated until mid morning. There's probably a study in there somewhere. (Akin to the study on the correlation between a pupil bringing their photograph money to school in the first week and the number of GCSEs that same student achieves five years later. I have a theory tested by time but alas, no funding.)

"Sir? Will he shut the school? Will we be sent home?"

Who? The Head? I doubt it.

"He's dead selfish!"

How do you make that out?

"Well it's not fair is it?"


"Because it's snowing."

Except it's not though is it? It was, but it's not any more and it's unlikely to before home time.

"He's dead selfish he is."

Sensing a circular argument and no meeting of minds, I try an alternative tack.

It's a difficult responsibility after all. It's a Health and Safety issue: he's got the safety of over a hundred staff and nearly thirteen hundred kids to balance against educational concerns. He's not going to close unless it's absolutely necessary. He's certainly not going to take you being a bit put out into consideration. Snow days aren't an entitlement. There's a lot of careful thought and a lot of advice-taking going into those decisions.

"When would he shut then?"

If the place was knee deep in snow; if the bus company couldn't get up the hill; if the motorways were shut; if the roads weren't gritted; if there was black ice; if the Education Authority said so; if most of the other schools shut. There are too many variables and you throwing snow at each other isn't one of them.

"He's dead selfish he is!"

Oh get real!

Overnight most of the above happened.

I threw back the curtains at 6.20 when the alarm went and, rather like a vampire shriveling before sunlight, I was blinded by a whiteout. (O.K. It was really my Beloved who opened the curtains as I hunkered down for an extra five minutes: poetic license - but you get the idea.) It was a winter wonderland indeed: the snow was several inches deep, there were no tracks in the road and everything looked sort of snuggled comfortably into the snow which was only marked by a criss-cross of fox prints.

I calculated the degree of difficulty in getting the car off the drive and down our quiet little road. Would the main roads have been cleared? What was the motorway like? More to the point, given that the Knowledge College is in a field on a hill in the middle of nowhere, would those local roads have been treated? Going on previous history that area is not a priority. Only last week the Boss had given us the Snow Day routine in the staff meeting: there would be a text to all staff and parents saying whether the school was open or not.  That wasn't entirely satisfactory as I'd got my text saying school was open ten minutes after I'd arrived yesterday. I certainly didn't fancy setting off in this weather only to get there - or worse, find myself stuck on the motorway with no escape - before the text arrived, which it did just as I was putting on my coat.

An unexpected day off. A little bit of light housework, a meal prepared, an Advent sermon written and the monitoring of Facebook as my colleagues shared slightly guilty congratulations on our good fortune, and no year 8 for me. What's not to like? And people say there's no God. Daughter Two went to protest with loads of students in the city centre about the proposed huge hike in University tuition fees and announced herself well pleased with the outcome. "Can I sleep at the University? They've occupied a building"

Wednesday was no better. Again I decided to wait for the text. Will rang me. "What's happening?"

No idea.

June rang. "Have you heard?"

Not a thing.

Nearly ten minutes later than normal I set off. I'd gone - slid -  less than half a mile when June rang back. "I've just rung school. The decision has been made not to open." Fifteen minutes later the text arrived. Had I set off at the normal time I'd have been on the motorway at that point and, as the day's news unfolded, very probably stuck there for the rest of the day. Not impressed.

Having stopped to take June's call I tried to take the most straightforward route home. It wasn't straight forward at all. The streets were clogged with snow. Cars were careering all over the place, getting stuck on hills, slithering back, failing to break. It took me almost as long to retrace my steps that half mile as a standard journey to school would have taken on a normal day. Daughter Two, whose school is just on the other side of the city was not amused to discover hers was open. Daughter One and my Beloved were both able to walk to work, which they did after some slightly resentful chuntering. Daughter Two came home mid morning. "We shut." Lots of Facebook chatter.

It snowed heavily on and off for most of the day.

I put together an Advent liturgy for Sunday, started a new book and flopped on the sofa to spend a disproportionate amount of time watching News 24 and local BBC stations. This was unprecedented for November: when we get weather like this it's usually January or February. The annual national soul-searching debate about our levels are preparedness for snow were dusted off and practiced all day - except this time most of North and Central Europe were in the same position. What no one can tell me - and I ask whoever will listen: what exactly does it mean when the BBC weathermen, the Police and the AA all tell us that we should only consider travelling if the journey is absolutely essential?  It just occurs to me that employee and employer might have very different understandings of that advice. What constitutes absolutely essential?

I receive a text from Daughter 2's school. They are closed tomorrow. How far sighted to know a day before. She won't have to get up at the crack of dawn and worry about buses or juggle the decion about whether to leave or wait for advice. Almost immediately afterwards I receive a call from the Head Teacher of our local primary school where my Beloved is a governor. They too, "And I stress how unprecidented this is" she said, had decided to close tomorrow.

That's a communication trend I'd like to encourage.

My Beloved returned with hood up and red nose, boots caked in snow.  "The University closed at three" she announced "Staff were told that for our safety we should assemble in the library to sleep overnight. Most people's cars are snowed in. Students are building snow barricades in the streets and there was this car with a six foot snow phallus on its roof." Ah, the benefits of a University education.

Just after seven Daughter One rang. Not at all confident in her balance in knee deep snow over ice she asked for a lift. When I'd stopped laughing I told her that I'd walk to meet her. Daughter Two and I, dressed like Starship Stormtroopers against the chill, set out on what is normally a twenty minute walk to Headingley. Our road was as I suspected: knee deep in unspoilt snow but the shock came at the main road. It was the same. No vehicles on the move which is possibly the first time I have ever seen it so. In the street lights it was an eerie sight. For a moment we could have been the only two people on the planet. Just up at the bus stop an abandoned bus's hazard lights blinked on and off. The driver, presumable, having had second thoughts about attempting the descent of the hill.

On our journey to meet Daughter One we passed no more than a dozen ghostly figures and no more than half a dozen moving vehicles. The snow was crisp underfoot and still falling. Daughter Two decided to pull tree branches as we walked under. She's such a card.

"Knob-head alert!" D. Two announced, as a student in shorts and trainers overtook us. (I don't know where she hears such language.) At this point D. One appeared in red beret and overcoat holding a pink umbrella. She looked rather sweet I felt: that unwaveringly English faith in the value of the umbrella under all circumstances. D. Two was less impressed. "Put it away. You're embarrassing."

As I went to bed I didn't even bother to set my alarm for Thursday morning.