When West Virginia teachers and service workers closed schools in 54 of 55 counties, the strike was announced as “snow days.” Like the year before, you could follow the accumulation of school closing the same way you would if it were snow that were doing the closing, rather than workers.
It makes sense. It was an emergency, there is a system in place for letting families know that school has been cancelled, and so they used it. Snow is the usual reason this happens, a regular, seasonal occurrence in a mountainous state with poor roads; however unexpected any individual “snow emergency” may be, cancellations and snow delays are expected, built into the schedule, with systems in place to prepare for and manage it. When the snow comes, you go online—or check twitter!—or listen to the radio, or turn on local news, and look for your county. It’s an emergency, but also a ritual; everyone knows what to do and no one is scared.
My memories of this ritual from my childhood remain intact. Switching on the radio in the pre-dawn gloom, listening for the sound of the blower as the wood-fire warmth slowly began to fill the house, hearing my father go out to scrape the car and defrost the windows, hoping against hope to hear the name of our county, which would spare me from trudging out to the road to wait for the bus; I remember the green-numbered clock radio I had, the crunchy sound of the static as you turned the dial, the look of the hills and trees covered with snow, and the way the snow falling out of the range of the porch light faded into darkness.
I remember all this as a ritual, because it happened reliably; it was as unpredictable as weather, and as normal. You never know when a storm will come, but you won’t be surprised when it does, and you will respect it. “God-willing and the creeks don’t rise!” is another thing that I remember people saying, and if they said it in a mocking, listen-to-me-talk-hillbilly sort of way, there’s a reverence for the weather that a state with bad roads, mountains, and dangerous bridges will educate into you. When the creeks rise, the bridges close.
One year we had seven days of snow and the roads stayed closed for a week; I walked out with my father into town, supposedly to buy something, but that wasn’t the important thing; mostly we walked out because we could, because there was nothing else to do, and because we wanted to see what it looked like, and to measure the miles and miles with our feet. Everything was shut down, no cars, no people, no stores, no movement. Just snow.
I’d apologize for getting off on this tangent, except that snow days are good occasions for long walks and rambling side-tracks. It’s good to slow things down and look at the world with new eyes; it’s good to take a walk, and to remember. Reality is made out of rituals, and when emergencies become rituals, it’s a sign that a new reality is emerging.
Last year’s strike was a surprise, to everyone. No one knew it was possible; no one knew it would happen; no one knew they could win. And then they did. And then there was a season of snow days, across the country, in red states where teachers don’t strike: school was closed in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. Each one was different, but all of them were surprising, different in kind from the storms we’ve spent the last few decades learning to expect; one strange storm can be explained away, but a wave of them tells you that the normal is shifting.
In one sense, this year’s school strike is over. There was a charter school bill in the legislature, and now there isn’t, so after striking for a second day, the teachers went back to their re-opened schools. But the world was a bit different when they did. Last year, no one knew what this weather could do; a storm like that one hadn’t been seen since 1990; last year, no one had expected that the strike could go on as long as it did, or be as popular and resolute as it was, and no one knew that it would inaugurate a strike across the country.
This year, they didn’t know if last year was a fluke. Now they know it isn’t, that the emergency has become a ritual, and that a new reality has emerged. When the storm came, it was anticipated, managed, and came to an end. There was a bill that the teachers and service workers didn’t like and now there isn’t; having cleared the roads, the schools opened. It’s not quite as exciting, not as novel, but the new normal this year is the thing to be watching. The wave continues, in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and Oakland. It’s shocking that this is now normal, that when the teachers said they were going to strike last week, the legislature listened; it’s shocking to me that, practically within hours, they killed the bill.
The climate is changing. But there’s a limit to the “weather” metaphor, and it’s this: weather just happens, but those strikes were made by workers. When teacher pay stagnates, or when the cost of health plans rise, the excuse is a fiscal emergency that seems to emerge from everywhere and nowhere, like weather. No one wants to cut teacher pay or raise the costs of their health insurance, and no one could have predicted this moment of austerity (or anticipate the next). It just came; the economy is unpredictable, but unanswerable; if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there. But this is the power of crisis, and why those in power don’t want to waste them: a crisis is undeniable. When something has to be done, it usually will be, which means to name and define and manage a crisis gives you the power to control it. What’s new is that different people are calling the emergency, naming the closings, and defining the response. This time, the crisis wasn’t “the economy”; the crisis was ALEC-written legislation. And the new normal was that schools closed until the emergency passed.