Snow and Other Natural Phenomena by Head of School Bob Henderson
Over twenty-three years ago, I moved to Maui to serve as the upper school head at Seabury Hall, at that time the only independent school on the island. Feeling very fortunate, my wife, Ross, and I packed up all our belongings and shipped them from where we lived in California to one of the most beautiful spots in the world. About a month after the start of school I started to notice on the weather reports (which otherwise said pretty much the same thing every day – 80 degrees, mostly sunny with a possible brief shower or two) that a large tropical storm was powering up in the Eastern Pacific and starting to trek across the ocean in our direction. Over a week it grew closer and closer, and soon the talk was about the probability of impact. All our friends and colleagues assured us that hurricanes “never” hit Maui, but in that inimitable tone of all local news weather broadcasts, ominous fear was imprinted on everyone. Soon we were only a couple of days away, and the lines at the grocery store and gas station were immense and panicky. All I could think to myself was that I had just relocated everything I own into a house made largely of plywood and glass, on an island where I couldn’t drive away from trouble, right in the line of fire of a major hurricane named Iniki.
We opened school on the morning of the hurricane after a weather report said that Iniki would pass safely just to our south. At about 9:00 a.m., however, Iniki took a jog to the north, and impact on Maui was projected for later that afternoon. In a rush, we closed school and sent everyone home, while the wind began to howl and the sky on the southern horizon turned almost black. Then, a couple of hours later, Iniki took a turn almost due west, narrowly skirted both Maui and Oahu, and slammed directly into Kauai as a category 4 storm, doing over a billion dollars in damage there. We were spared, but the sad images and stories from Kauai were pervasive for a long time thereafter. And that was my introduction to hurricane days in Hawaii.
The other phenomenon that impacted school while we lived on Maui was tsunami days. On a couple of occasions while we lived there a major earthquake would occur somewhere around the Pacific “ring of fire” and a tsunami warning would be signaled by huge air raid sirens on our island. That meant that schools shut down, coastal areas were evacuated, and only emergency and authorized vehicles were supposed to be on coastal roads. Fortunately, none of those warnings resulted in an actual tsunami, as waves just a couple of feet higher than usual lapped ashore.
I also lived in California for a number of years, including during the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that rocked the San Francisco bay area in 1989. I distinctly remember sitting in the gym at my school watching a girls volleyball game that October, thinking to myself that I hope this will end soon so I can get home and watch the Giants play the A’s in the World Series on TV. Then everything shook violently for what seemed like a full minute, the power went out, and people went running from the building and in every direction. This was a boarding school and we had to figure out how to navigate the next several days without any electricity, keeping an academic schedule and feeding and caring for several hundred people. We managed, and in fact it was, in retrospect, a pretty special time for the school; we were reminded that learning and communities fundamentally come down to relationships and people caring for one another.
New England has its snow days, and this winter has been a doozy so far. I admit that I enjoy calling the first snow day in a winter season; it breaks up the seasonal monotony and injects a welcome bit of excitement. By the fourth snow day, however, I am trying desperately not to call off school. Ultimately, I am impelled by the calculus of how many people will find it difficult, unsafe, or even impossible to get to school, plus the factor of the number of faculty who may not be able to come in because their own children are home and out of school in other towns and cities, and the burden on and time necessary for our buildings and grounds crew to make the campus accessible and safe. Independent schools, whether dismissed for reasons of hurricane, tsunami, earthquake or blizzard, do not generally seek to make up the school days that are missed. I imagine there could come a time when so many days are missed that we feel compelled to do so, but we are not there yet this winter. My firm belief is that teachers and students can catch up much more efficiently and effectively in the time remaining in the school calendar than they can in the languid days of late June. Moreover, the March break is already largely claimed by school trips. So there will be some extra pressure through the spring as teachers strive to complete their entire curricula, but experience in many climates and species of natural disaster informs me that we will get there, and with better morale and higher quality learning experiences than if we simply tag on time in the summer.