School Wasn't Canceled for Bad Weather in 1882

A story from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books proves we've all gone soft.
A one-room schoolhouse built in the 1850s in Maine, similar to the one where Laura Ingalls Wilder taught (Wikimedia Commons)

Record-low temperatures caused by the Polar Vortex have forced schools across the country to close this week. Weather-related school cancellations tend to raise anxieties about whether we're a nation of wimps. During President Obama's first winter in Washington, he complained when his daughters' school closed for bad weather: "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town." In response to this latest round of school closings, a Virginia mom sighed, "Hasn’t anyone heard of gloves, scarf and a hat when it’s cold?? Just bundle up—people do it all over the world. We are such wimps to cancel school."

A story about a teacher assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota in the 1880s will confirm suspicions that America has gone soft when it comes to dealing with the cold. The story is from These Happy Golden Years, the second-to-last book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved "Little House" series about growing up on the American frontier. It describes the protagonist, a 15-year-old teacher named Laura, traveling a half a mile in the snow to get to school: 

There had been a snowstorm in the night. She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again. The early sunshine was faintly pink on miles of pure snow and every little shadow was thin blue. As Laura plunged and plowed through the soft drifts, she saw Clarence breaking a path for Tommy and Ruby behind him. They floundered to the school-shanty's door at the same time.

Little Ruby was covered from head to foot with snow, even her hood and her braids were snowy. Laura brushed her and told her to keep her wraps on until the room was warmer. Clarence put more coal on the fire while Laura shook her own wraps and swept the snow through the cracks between the floorboards. The sunshine streaming through the window made the shanty look warm, but it was colder than outdoors. But soon the good stove's warmth made their breaths invisible; it was nine o'clock, and Laura said, "School will come to order."

The first thing to point out is that there is no pause between "There had been a snowstorm in the night" and "She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again." No moment to wonder whether school would be called off, whether she'd be able to spend the day at home by the fire. School was happening.

And then there's the description of the journey itself: Laura and her students didn't have the benefit of snowplows or sidewalk salt to clear their path to school the morning after a storm. They had to break their own ways through untouched snow. And when they arrived at school, what did they find? A room that was even colder than the frigid outdoors.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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