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March/April 2014

Boiler Room:
Best intentions still cause snow day headaches

by “Gus”

Gus, the custodian at Eastside Grammar, is the creation of Richard W. Smelter, a retired school principal, now a Chicago-based college instructor and author.

You know what kind of winter it’s been … huge snowfalls, sub-zero temps, stalled cars, icy roads, the whole ball of wax. Polar vortex? Seems like we’re in a new Ice Age! One of these mornings I expect to see a saber-toothed tiger or a Wooly Mammoth on my drive to work.

This all plays havoc with our school, as it does with lots of schools. The superintendent probably has the biggest headache … do you keep the schools open? …do you dismiss the kids early? … Do you call a “snow day”? Mr. Keck told me the poor supe wakes up at about 3:00 a.m. when snow is predicted … just to listen to the radio and stare out the window. Sometime around 4:30, he calls the district transportation director to get his opinion. If they agree to shut the school district down, they wake up the principals, who start a “phone tree” to tell the teachers to stay home and the closing is phoned into the TV stations and is posted on the Internet.

Sounds slick, but sometimes this doesn’t work as planned.

One day last January, everything sorta fell apart.

The weather stations had predicted “light snow showers” on their nightly broadcast, so everybody went to sleep without any real concern. Still the supe got up early to look out the window. Nada.

Nothing. Zip.

So the poor guy went back to bed. He forgot to reset his alarm, however and wound up waking up later than usual.

About a half hour after the supe drifted off, the snow began falling in great sheets. It soon reached a rate of two inches an hour. By 6 a.m. there were near “white-out conditions on the roads. The weather folks called this one wrong—these were no slight snow showers.”

Our superintendent awakened at 6:50 and checked the weather station, which showed the “revised forecast. The snow was expected to accelerate throughout the morning and not end before noon. The snow was expected to exceed 10 inches. Severe winds would blow the snow back onto the roads as fast as the plows could remove it.

The trouble was …the supe didn’t call off school until 7:15 in the morning. Anybody in the “school biz” knows this is a recipe for disaster.

By the time everybody got the news, Mr. Keck and I were already at Eastside along with six teachers who thought they’d leave for work early to beat the worst of the snow. Seven school buses had already left the garage and the drivers were in local coffee shops, ready to begin their routes. To top it off, we had eight kids who’d been dropped off at school early by their parents who were expecting a longer drive to their places of work.

Mr. Keck began his day by attempting to call the parents who’d dropped off their kids, but at least half of them hadn’t supplied the school with their cell phone numbers. The records contained their work phone numbers, of course, but Keck would have to wait until they reached their places of employment in order to inform them Eastside was closed for the day.

Keck called the six teachers into the office and asked their cooperation in working out some sort of supervision for the eight students who’d been dropped off early. As you know, we have a top-notch bunch of pros here at Eastside. Most are more than ready to roll up their sleeves and help out in an emergency. But we also have a small number of folks who wouldn’t help Keck if he were drowning, and they were equipped with life preservers.

Don Jennings told Keck that he didn’t see why he should be required to work when most of the staff was at home watchin’ TV and drinkin’ hot chocolate. He said he’d help out if the district paid him an additional day’s wages, Keck told him in so many words to get out of his office.

Mary Edwards, our “ultra-unionist,” said she didn’t intend to engage in babysitting and told Keck she was returning to her room to prepare a grievance against the district for not calling her in time to prevent her coming to work, causing her “great mental stress,” and “jeopardizing her life,” by forcing her to drive on the slick roads. As a matter of fact, she said she already felt a panic attack coming on. Keck told her to take a couple of aspirin and find someplace in the building where he wouldn’t bump into her for the remainder of the day.

Bob Barnett said he’d take the eight kids down to his room, if another teacher would take over after a few hours. Keck was relieved, even though the students consisted of two kindergarteners, two first-graders, three second-graders, and one third-grader and Bob’s gig was teaching sixth-grade social studies.

The remaining teachers went to the teachers’ lounge to play bridge and work out who’d be the next to shepherd the kids after Bob had put in his two hours.

Well, the day sorta went from bad to worse, if that’s possible.

Bob spent his two hours with the kids by engaging in a lengthy diatribe on how we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, putting his 5-to 9-year-old audience to sleep (If you stop to think about it, this was kinda clever on Bob’s part.)

The next teacher to sit with the kids told them to draw some pictures and color them: 15 pictures to be exact, art and math all rolled into one!

The third staff member took the kids to the cafeteria and made peanut butter sandwiches for them, served along with potato chips from the vending machine in the teachers’ lounge.

The superintendent’s day didn’t go much better.

His day was crowded with phone calls and email messages from angry parents, chiding him for calling off school so late.

One of the school bus drivers who’d started out early and got snowed in at a local coffee shop had some sort of emotional relapse, started shouting obscenities and threw a shoe at a bunch of coffee cups behind the restaurant’s counter. The cops had to be called.

In light of the fact that a neighboring district had remained open, one of our school board members (who has about as much respect for the superintendent as he does for a small rodent) called the supe to ask him why he was so “wimpy” to shut the place down when the other district had remained open, apparently because the superintendent who ran the show there had “more guts.”

About 1:00 in the afternoon, little Sally Caruthers, one of the kindergarten kids who’d been stranded at school was sent to Keck’s office because she had a stomach ache. Keck had no success in reaching Sally’s parents and just had her sit by his desk to relax a bit.

A short while later, Mary Edwards brought her neatly typed grievance to Keck’s office and plopped it down in the center of his desk. At that moment Sally rose to her feet, grasped her stomach and threw up all over Mary’s paperwork. Sally’s up-chucking didn’t do much for Keck’s coffee and doughnut, either.

“Well, Keck said, “I was going to tell you what I think of your grievance, Mrs. Edwards, but Sally has summed it up better than I ever could!”

Keck, chuckling under his breath, cheerfully cleaned up the mess and gave Sally a lollipop for being “Student of the Day.”

Well, as usual, everything worked out, even though the last of the eight students wasn’t picked up until 5:45 p.m. By that time Bob Barnett had subjected the kids to two more lectures — one on the composition of the Roman Senate in the Old Republic and the other on geopolitical forces impacting the value of the Euro.

As expected the kids fell asleep again! Wow! That man’s clever!

The superintendent contacted Keck that night to go over what could have been improved, so as to be better prepared for any future snow days. Keck’s advice? He told the supe to get a back-up alarm clock.

Mr. Keck should know how to be prepared… after all, he’s the principal.

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