In the Hands of Others

The thing I despise most is having control of my life placed into someone else’s hands. It is a certainty in life that not everything is able to be controlled. Nonetheless, there are things we can do to lower risks to ourselves. I found myself in a situation Tuesday morning in which the careless decisions of others put my life in direct danger.

Another Snow Nightmare

I hate snow. I despise it. I wrote a three-part series on my “adventure” getting stuck in snow for half a day several years ago, which was also the result of the decisions of others.

I grew up in Connecticut and experienced enough snow to last a lifetime. As a high school teacher, I have asserted many times that I would rather be in school all winter—no snow days—than have to deal with the cold, white hazard.
Which is why I was not excited about the prospect of “one to two inches” of snow falling on Tuesday morning. As a coworker and I discussed Tuesday’s chance of snow, I noted that the timing was such that the snow would be falling during rush hour—meaning districts might not be justified in calling off school if the snow hadn’t fallen yet—and that I would rather the snow miss us entirely than we be put in a situation where we were forced to drive through the snow, as I worried we might.

Unfortunately, my premonition came true.

I awoke at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning with a painful sinus pressure—usually an indication that precipitation was on its way. As I passed the window to retrieve sinus medicine, I smiled that the ground was still dark: no snow had fallen. Perhaps we could hold out.

I awoke again at 5 a.m.—when my alarm sounded—to a dusting of snow on the ground, and more falling. Shortly after, I watched the news screen fill with a growing list of districts that had either closed or chosen a two-hour delay. I waited and waited for my school district to join the list. As the hour grew later, I thought, surely, that my district must be contemplating whether to decide on a delay versus a full closure. I went outside with the dogs to note a hearty coating on the driveway and roads. The temperature was cold enough that the snow was slick—both for walking and driving. And it was accumulating.

Surely, I thought, there would be an announcement soon. After all, roads weren’t yet plowed, and I was sure VDOT wouldn’t want thousands of cars and buses on roads that hadn’t been cleared. (Why weren’t roads plowed, anyway? Doesn’t VDOT communicate with school districts?)

At 6:40, I knew it was too late for the district to make the call. All but three of the counties were closed or at least delayed. Our district was one of the three: we would start on time. Buses for the elementary schools would already be on the road. Resigned, I showered.
In response to a coworker’s post on Facebook about dreading the morning commute, I replied. In my reply, I wondered how many accidents would be caused as a result of the decision to follow a neighboring county and hold school at the regular hour. It seemed the district always follows its easterly cousin despite different weather patterns. But in this case, early reports from the roads suggested that both districts were in bad shape. And all around us, districts were changing from two-hour delays to full closures.

A War Prayer

As I got ready to leave—packing a pair of boots, a blanket, a snow shovel, kitty litter, and extra winter gear (I had been stuck once before) as well as an extra-hearty lunch—I stood looking out at my driveway, wondering whether I would make it to school without wrecking my car or being injured or killed. I listened to the soft snow falling—the neighborhood was silent, and it seemed many had chosen to keep their children home from school. What would normally be the muffled calm of a peaceful snowfall sounded to me instead like the nervous silence before an exam or a battle—before a high-stakes situation into which one carried the knowledge that not all would come out unscathed.

My husband’s voice echoed in my head. Before I left, he’d said, “just stay home.”

I didn’t because on days with bad weather, any teacher who doesn’t show up puts more pressure on the teachers who are already there—teachers who show up are often asked to cover classes for those unable to make it to school. Wanting to be fair to my coworkers, and knowing my students would need instruction, I breathed a silent prayer that I would make it to school, stopped my musing, got into my car, and pulled slowly away.

Growing up in Connecticut, my father took me out into empty parking lots during snowy days and forced me to fish-tail so that I’d know how to control my car if I ever skidded. I thank him for that. Although I drive carefully in snow, changing speed or braking very slowly, I did fishtail turning out of a neighborhood on Tuesday morning. The local roads had not been plowed at all. I decided, based on the lack of control I had on such slushy roads (none of which were paved), I would take the main “highway” to get to work. It was a fortunate choice—even though the highway wasn’t plowed, either. Luckily, all the people who chose to take that road were being patient, driving slowly, and leaving plenty of space. The road was relatively straight with gradual hills, and we were all able to stay in the tire tracks of the car in front of us. No one was weaving between lanes, and everyone signaled and waited for “permission” to change lanes. Although I was traveling at a speed of about 4 mph for most of the drive, at least I arrived safely. Two coworkers who took the back road I opted to avoid were not so lucky. One could not control the car and turned back out of caution. Another flipped the car (and luckily walked away).

When I arrived at school, the parking lot wasn’t plowed. I parked as well as I could—next to a van (hoping the van was in the lines). My hands were shaking with the adrenaline of the drive. As more and more teachers trickled in, I noticed many of them were shaking, too—and shaken.

No Consequences

But what I don’t understand is: I am paying taxes to a state and a locality with the implied understanding that the powers-that-be are using my money to make decisions to benefit me. Plowing roads that need to be plowed. Communicating with school districts about whether roads are passable. The worst thing about it was: when I got to school, I was ushered into the gymnasium, told that there were not enough teachers to hold classes. The entire school waited in the auditorium until enough teachers and students arrived before being ushered to first block class.

I had made it on time and was able to help monitor students in the gymnasium. But valiant or stupid?

Attendance in each of my classes was less than 50%, with students either leaving (after seeing that they would be ushered into the gym) or being called for early dismissals by concerned parents. So I risked my life in order to essentially supervise three study halls that day—I certainly wasn’t going to teach new information with more than half of my students missing.

Driving to school, the radio announcer said, “Remember that if you choose to be on the road during a winter advisory [which quickly turned into a winter warning, by the way], you are taking your life into your hands and putting your life at risk. So think carefully before going out.”

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to think carefully. I was doomed to be one of the lemmings who followed the others off the cliff. Both counties (my county and the one whose decisions my county always “copies”) offered half-hearted apologies that do nothing to ease the stress of travel or the burden of those who got into accidents as a result of the decision.

What to Hope for

I would say that I wish for decisions in the future that do not put my life at risk, only I wish for something greater: I wish that our society were not such that we are all reduced essentially to lemmings, following the bad call of (who knows who actually made the call? The blame game passes that around). If only we lived in a society where common sense prevailed.

This incident has increased my distaste for the public sector. In a government, many officials are elected, but many aren’t. With so much red tape and blame shifting, what recourse do I truly have if someone makes a decision to endanger my life by deciding to send us all to school in the middle of a snowstorm? I could be a bad teacher and ditch school whenever I feel the commute is dangerous, or I could be a good teacher and drive to school in any and all conditions.

If I buy a product from the private sector and am not satisfied, I will likely be refunded my money or compensated in some way. (After a disappointing experience with some chicken, I emailed customer service and was mailed a coupon for twice the amount I had paid along with the explanation that my experience was not representative of the brand—and I rewarded the company by applying it toward more of their chicken. And it was delicious.)

If a government official messes up, it really isn’t his money (or hers) being wasted. If an official makes a decision that results in a life-threatening accident, it isn’t his family (or hers) that is affected. They can apologize or evaluate the situation as much as they like, but what consequences are there really? There is no incentive to be efficient. Their government office never has to worry about “going out of business.” The only incentive of a government official seems to be to win favorable public opinion—or avoid a negative one (or avoid a negative opinion on behalf of a boss, department, etc.). But public opinion and results are two different beasts. School officials are criticized for closing schools on days when snow was expected but didn’t end up falling. School officials are criticized for keeping schools open on days when the weather proves dangerous. Simply wanting to avoid blame is not good enough.

In the public sector, there is no way I can prove my loyalty in the way I could purchase a package of chicken as a testament to my satisfaction of the product’s quality. In the public sector, I can voice my concern, I can move on with my life, or I can live quietly content with the sector. There is no way I can show my support the same way I would when I buy a product. Without this constant feedback, there is no incentive, no pressure, that forces the public sector to be more efficient.
School was held that day, taxpayers paid to heat the buildings so students could sit around in a gym, and teachers with Master’s degrees sat around monitoring study halls. As the incident with the snowstorm illustrates, the public sector is owned by everyone and no one, funded by everyone and no one, and run by everyone and no one. No one is to blame, no one is to be rewarded, nothing is truly at stake. It’s the government, and mediocrity is what we’ve come to expect.

Only hopefully next time, it won’t affect me so personally.