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.
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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.

What happened next is equally surprising to a modern reader. Two students came in a few minutes after Laura called class to order. She had to decide whether to penalize them for being tardy:

Martha and Charles came in panting, three minutes late. Laura did not want to mark them tardy; they had to break their path, the whole mile. A few steps in deep snow are easy, and fun, but breaking a path is work that grows harder with every step. For a moment Laura thought of excusing Martha and Charles, this one time. But that would not be honest. No excuse could change the fact; they were tardy.

"I am sorry I must mark you tardy," she said. "But you may come to the stove and get warm before you take your seat."

Martha and Charlie were three measly minutes late after walking a whole mile through deep snow. But even these heart-wrenching circumstances weren't enough to turn this young teacher from her commitment to honesty. She marked them tardy.

Finally we get to yet another remarkable part of the story: the students' reaction to Laura's decision. 

"We're sorry, Miss Ingalls," Martha said. "We didn't know it would take so long."

"Breaking a path is hard work, I know," said Laura, and suddenly she and Martha were smiling to each other, a friendly smile that made Laura feel as if teaching school were easy.

Martha didn't throw a Cher-in-Clueless-style fit at being marked tardy. She simply apologized. In fact, Wilder seems to imply that this episode made Martha like her teacher more. Notice the description of the student and teacher smiling at one another, and Laura's subsequent determination that teaching school was "easy."

It's important to recognize that the "Little House" books were written decades after the events that they describe. As author Wendy McClure, who wrote a book about the series, put it in an interview a few years ago, "You have to admit that the Little House books are constructed, and there were definite artistic decisions and efforts to portray things a certain way, and leave out other things." Anyone with a grandparent who reminisces about walking five miles to school, uphill both ways, knows that people sometimes exaggerate the hardships they faced in their youth. Still, we can trust the basic facts about life a century and a half ago: School was open, even the day after a snowstorm. Getting to school was very difficult without the technologies we have now. School was cold once you got there. And, yes, by comparison, today we're all wimps.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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