Politics & Policy

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Thanks a lot, Fairfax County schools!

The Fairfax County School District, God love it, has finally settled the issue of whether Washington, D.C. is part of the north or the south.

The answer: It’s the south.

The reason: Its Georgia-like inability to cope with bad weather.

Fairfax County was one of three D.C.-area districts to delay the opening of school Tuesday by two hours, not because the roads were icy, not because the snow was blinding–there was no ice or snow–but because it was, well, cold.

That would be “cold” by southern standards.

The low temperature of 12 degrees early Tuesday would have induced sunbathing in parts of Minnesota this week. But, in the D.C. suburbs, 12 degrees is apparently the temperature at which you can fry a public-school official’s brain on the sidewalk. So it was announced on Monday night, right after Jack Bauer announced his intention to single-handedly save the world on 24, that any world-saving in Fairfax County would have to begin after 11, when, presumably, the school buses would all agree to start.

The dastardly Fairfax school buses, you see, were offered as the official reason for the delay. They might be hard to start. The buses two miles across the state line, over in Montgomery County, Md., are apparently more compliant and required no such coddling. Montgomery County schools opened on time, even though Maryland, last I checked, is a bit farther north than Virginia, and, presumably, even colder.

Look, don’t take my word for this idiocy. This is what was posted on the school district’s website:

All Fairfax County public schools will open two hours late on Tuesday, January 18, 2005 due to predicted severe cold temperatures in the morning. School-system buses are stored outside and this delay will give staff members the time needed to have all buses operational.

School buses, stored outside! Who’d have thunk it?

Over in Prince William County, also on a two-hour delay, an official said that if the buses wouldn’t start, children might be waiting outside and suffer frostbite. Well, indeed, that would be very sad; everyone cares about children, except for maybe Newt Gingrich. But, temperatures weren’t expected to rise much during the day. Indeed, at noon, it was still just 21 degrees, so the world’s still not safe from frostbite, despite the best efforts of Prince William County. And no one has addressed the bigger problem, which is this: It’s just January. There’s more cold coming. How many half days can we sustain without widespread parental revolt?

I grew up in South Carolina, where a lone snowflake can cause state government to close up within the hour. (Gotta get everyone home before the roads get bad.) There was one significant snowfall during my childhood–1973, when 16 inches fell. This was the seminal winter-weather event of the century; in fact, it is still commemorated each year when the Charleston Chess Club holds a mid-February tournament called the “Annual Snowstorm Special.”

When I lived in Charleston in the late ’90s, the schools once closed two days for less than a half-inch of snow. South Carolina schools, therefore, teach children one thing about winter–it should be feared–and I was a very good student. To this day, I don’t like driving in snow, and I generally get cold in October and don’t thaw out again until well past Easter. I hate being cold. When Garrison Keillor, the NPR humorist, trills “Singing in the snow, singing in the snow. What a wonderful feeling, it’s 20 below,” I want to hit him, but it’s hard to make a fist when you have on three pairs of gloves.

Still, despite my aversion to cold–indeed, to suffering in general–I understand its importance. Without cold weather, there would be no L.L. Bean, and New England’s economy would tank. Most importantly, we need cold weather in the current news drought, if only to keep us alert. It’s impossible to be sluggish and inattentive in wind chills below zero.

This I can say only because I am a southerner: Heat makes you stupid. Heat makes you lazy. Northerners consider southerners slow because, well, we are. We talk slowly, we think slowly. Cold may not make you smart, but it does make you nimble. Northerners and midwesterners move quickly because they have to. It’s too darn cold outside.

My oldest son is, as his teachers like to say, attention-deficit disordered and in need of medication–or, as his father and I say, bored and in need of a bright and engaging teacher. Every fall, we are invited to the school to sit down with somber specialists who tell us how we should better educate our son so he won’t drag down the school’s aggregate test scores in the spring. We cooperate–to a point. But my son’s main problem is not his God-given intelligence, but his Gen-X-like unwillingness to do anything that’s hard. And the school district, clearly, is not going to give him any assistance when it comes to character building.

Keillor’s best reflection on winter is called “Good Enough,” and like all great truths of the universe, is pithy enough to be printed on a coffee mug, and so, of course, it is. This excerpt should be required reading for Fairfax County administrators, and maybe the bus drivers, too:

Growing up in a place that has winter, you learn to avoid self-pity. Winter is not a personal experience, everybody else is as cold as you, so you shouldn’t complain about it too much. You learn this as a kid, coming home crying from the cold, and Mother looks down and says, “It’s only a little frostbite. You’re okay.” And thus you learn to be okay.

Unfortunately, the only thing my kids learned today at a Fairfax County school was that if something is hard, you should do whatever it takes, even to the point of inconveniencing others, to make it a little easier.

Upon learning that school would start late because it was cold, Mencken, demonstrating an innate shrewdness that the Virginia Standards of Learning test will not uncover, asked hopefully, “Well, do I still have to walk to school?”

He did, of course. It’s only a little frostbite. I think he’ll be okay.

Jennifer Graham writes and edits from Falls Church, Va., when it’s not too cold.

Jennifer GrahamJennifer Graham writes for the Boston Globe and Equus, and is the author of Honey Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner.

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