On Wednesday morning thousands of Minnesota schoolkids will wake up and hear two of the most magical words in their vocabulary: snow day.
Two months after getting the first big snowfall of the year, the state will receive another winter blast, though Minnesotans can't complain too much since people were golfing just last week. But the clubs can be put away now for the next three or four months. Break out the shovels. And the promises to someday move out of the damned state to someplace warm. As much as a foot of snow could fall in the southern part of the state. Strong winds will combine with the snow to create whiteout conditions. Authorities recommend no travel.
It's fairly standard stuff for the state, but if you're in school, getting a hand from Mother Nature never gets old, even if the long winters sometimes do. As a kid, you don't really appreciate just how dangerous a snowstorm can be, at least until getting a driver's license. You don't care about the treacherous commute workers face. All you want to hear is more news about "blowing snow" and its first-cousin, "dangerous drifting." A foot of snow is nice, but not necessarily a school closer. It's usually all about the wind. Two inches can fall but can shut down a school, depending on the wind. Very rarely that wind led to a "cold day," when temperatures and wind chills became so brutal that schools throughout the state closed, occasionally by government decree.
But snow days ruled. Today of course the Internet provides the minute-by-minute updates on school closings. When I was in school we relied primarily on the radio, specifically WCCO, also known as the Good Neighbor. And when the morning anchors delivered news of a late start or a cancellation, they really were being good neighbors, as if they somehow had control over the school names they mechanically recited.
They read them alphabetically, meaning we had to wait a bit before they'd get to the Js. My stomach started churning around the Cs. By the time the announcer had barreled through the Fs, I'd started in with the prayers.
The tension increased as the announcer breezed through each letter, meticulously listing the schools that were an hour late, then those that had a two-hour late start. Finally the highlight of the show: the cancellations. It was like listening to election results over a radio, only with more at stake. The tension increased depending on how little homework a student did the night before. Betting on a snow day could be dangerous.
The tension increased because another school in the state - Paynesville - sounded exactly like Janesville, so if you somehow missed the order and just caught the "esville part" there was always a question about whether it was us or the lucky kids in central Minnesota. Then you had to wait for the announcer to read the entire list again before hearing the good or bad news.
For a time, our school superintendent had a reputation as being the toughest administrator in the state. He made Bud Grant look like a pansy. As the legend went, he'd drive outside of town and into the country to see just how bad the roads had become. If he didn't go into the ditch, we had school. Didn't matter if every other school in the state had called it off, we'd be trudging in, trying to learn through the haze of bitterness. We took it personally, as if he enjoyed sending us out into the harsh winter day. We probably had as many snow days as anyone else, but when we got one we felt like we'd truly earned it.
We did seem to have an inordinately high number of one-hour-late starts, which are nothing but cruel teases. Might as well just send the kids in at the normal time. An hour late? What's that give you? Can't go back to bed, unless it's for maybe a 30-hour nap. The school day is still going to drag on.
Whenever official word of a full-blown cancellation came over the airwaves, a whole range of options opened up. A snow day felt like two regular days off. We were like death row inmates granted a last-minute reprieve. The only question now, how to utilize this freedom? Snowball wars? Of course, provided the snow wasn't too fluffy. Sledding and snowmobiling were near-certainties. In our house, I'd put up a Nerf hoop on the sliding glass door and we'd hold hours-long dunking contests and one-on-one tournaments. We flourished. Snow days often became more productive for students than many school days.
In high school the options increased. Senior year, a snow day led to an epic football game in the yard of a friend who lived on a farm. Emotions ran high as the wind chill plummeted. The only thing missing was some old-school NFL Films music and a John Facenda narration. Controversy erupted when we discovered one of the players, my friend Mike, wore an illegal boot that gave him a decided advantage when running in the snow. What's an illegal boot? It's decidedly lighter than the monstrosities on our feet, which would have served us well on Mount Everest, providing him traction and the chance for more speed. He denied the charge then and still does today. The proof was in our slipping and sliding while he thrived and ran carefree through the snow, like a young Jerry Rice. I'd like to say there were no hard feelings over the boots or the game, but since I still remember that day nearly 17 years later, that would be a lie.
The only downfall to snow days is if a school accumulates too many of them. That leads to having to make them up at the end of the year. But in the midst of a snow day, no one thinks about what's going to take place six months later. It's all about the here and now.
By the end of the snow day, only one question really matters to students. Is this storm bad enough for the rarest of events: back-to-back snow days?
I don't miss Minnesota winters. But how I miss those snow days.