Language has always intrigued me. As the child of a sailor and a former waitress with a penchant for literature, I picked up a lot of words at a relatively early age. Some of them must have been quite amusing, judging by the reaction of my mother’s bridge club the night she dropped me in my playpen and closed the door, to keep me out of the living room.
The greatest short-term infusion for my vocabulary may have come on the winter evening when my father and I went off the road in his 1954 International Harvester pickup. It was snowing heavily, and the only end of Davis Hill Road that was then open made a 90-degree turn just before the steep climb up the hill. The truck was rear-wheel-drive, as were nearly all vehicles in those days, but there were 400 pounds of oak in the bed for traction. A set of chains hung off the backboard, but they were a trial to put on in the biting cold with bare fingers, so — after a day of work in the woods — my father made the turn at the best speed he could, hoping to gun it up the hill. Instead, we skidded off into the snowbank. That kept us out of the swamp, but it must have taken an hour to dig out, back out, and mount the chains. I held the flashlight the whole while, listening attentively to the foreign-sounding soliloquy spilling out of my father. Some words I recognized but most I didn’t, and when I tried a few of them out at recess the next day some little snitch went streaking for the office, where I was soon called by special messenger.
I learned another new word just last week. “Chionophobia” isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, or even the Merriam Webster, but it seems to be a buzzword common among therapists on the lookout for some marketable ailment to treat at $100 or more per hour. When the profitable Greek suffix “phobia” is hung on the Greek word “chioni,” the concept of a morbid fear of snow is born.
Now, I’ve never liked snow. The first storm that sticks is always a little depressing to me, and in winters as bad as this one I really grow to hate it, but I can’t say that I’ve ever actually been afraid of it. Unfortunately, there are obviously quite a few people hereabouts who are terrified of the white stuff. Just ask them to drive somewhere or send their kids somewhere during a storm — somewhere, that is, besides the ski slopes, which is usually OK.
Here in the North Country, a phalanx of parents and their allies in the employ of the school district usually force their neighbors to fund a generous array of programs. That might serve as evidence of their high regard for education were it not flatly contradicted by their support for — and even demand for — speedy cancellations, delayed starts, or early releases at the slightest accumulation of snow. A truncated day will bomb instruction, especially in the upper grades, and makeup days in late June are useless. Blizzard bags seem little more than a euphemism for vacation, and defending them weakens the argument that classroom teachers are the most important part of the entire system.
The budget proposed by the Conway School District for next year will cost taxpayers over $200,000 per school day. A couple of weeks ago local superintendents salvaged one of those enormously expensive days by actually holding school while snow was falling, and for that effort they were absolutely excoriated. Their primary critics appeared to be parents who could have chosen to keep their kids at home, if it was so perilous.
Sometime, somewhere, the first precedent of canceling school for snow turned it into a litigable decision. Thanks to that, superintendents who should be focusing on pedagogy, curriculum, and budgets are now also expected to be fortune tellers. Superintendent David Appleton refused to cancel school in the 1950s and ’60s, when four-wheel-drive was uncommon and front-wheel-drive virtually unknown. In the dozen years I attended Conway schools, I don’t recall a single snow day. There was at least one early release, memorable to me because I had to walk the last mile of unplowed dirt road in knee-deep drifts.
My father was still driving that International when he became the only custodian at Conway Elementary School. He had to be there early every day, without fail, to tend the boiler and clear the walks. The parents of kids who lived on other back roads might give up on trying to get out, but there was no hope for me.
This winter pales alongside those of 1957 or 1969, and our roads are better maintained than ever before. A salt-heavy bare-pavement policy robs each of us of half the life in every car we own, and most of those cars are more nimble in snow than anything available half a century ago. But we have an Achilles heel — a class of people who specifically chose to move to northern New England, despite living in abject horror of a snowstorm.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.
- Category: Columns