Executive Perspective

Snow Blind

by Paul D. Houston

Last year during the winter holidays I was driving across country to my home in Arizona. We left Kansas on a beautiful clear crisp winter day, headed for Albuquerque, N.M., to stay overnight before pushing on to Tucson. After 850 miles we were only about 60 miles from our destination so we stopped for a late dinner in Santa Rosa, N.M. When we came out, it was spitting snow. Not a good thing at that altitude.

We drove on for about 10 miles and were stopped by a traffic backup. Cars and trucks in front, beside and behind. I thought there might be a wreck ahead, but I couldn’t tell. We anticipated we might be stuck for a half hour or so and could still get to Albuquerque before bedtime. The half hour became an hour, then two, then three. Meanwhile, it was snowing harder. If we didn’t move soon, the snow was going to be an issue. And by that time bodily functions were demanding attention. But how? And where? And why wouldn’t someone come along and tell us what was happening ahead?

A Waiting Game
It was getting colder by the minute and snowing harder by the second. Huge flakes tumbling all around and the car was getting cold. I had been smart enough in the first 15 minutes to turn off the engine to save gas. So, as the hours ran by, I restarted the engine for about 10 minutes every hour to warm up the car.

You couldn’t really sleep — what if the traffic opened up while you were dozing and you missed the chance to go? We had figured out how to handle some of the body functions. (In the name of good taste I won’t explain further — there really are some things you don’t want to know.)

We waited. And waited. I was learning the Zen teaching of being in the moment. Where do you go when you can’t go anywhere?

Then I realized that I was experiencing what our teachers must feel like in their No Child Left Behind world. They can’t move forward, they can’t back up, they aren’t going anywhere, and the authorities won’t even try to tell them what is happening or why. As they sit there in their classrooms, trying to survive (dealing with their own bodily functions), they are being buried in mindlessness.

It goes beyond frustrating — to a sense of hopelessness and mind-numbing emptiness. There is no sense of power over what is happening. And as they feel responsible for getting their children to safety and nothing is in their control, they may feel panicked and profoundly frustrated.

Fleeting Hope
After six hours of sitting in the snow, the traffic started to move. It was now 3:30 a.m. We had missed our hotel reservation in Albuquerque but we were moving. Hope at last. We drove about a mile and everything stopped again. We had no idea why we had been allowed to start and now no idea why we were stopped. The routine continued.

Three hours later at 6:30 a.m. a highway patrolman came up the shoulder moving against the traffic. He was the first police officer we had seen. He was using his siren and winding his arm like a trail boss telling folks to move out. The traffic crept forward again and we found we were only about a quarter of a mile from a truck stop. It would have been nice to know that earlier. Or would it? Is it better to know something good is just ahead — or worse, knowing you probably still can’t reach it, such as all students percent being proficient in math and literacy by 2014?

The police were sending everyone off the road into the truck stop. We joined hundreds of stranded passengers at one of the least pleasant establishments I have been in since my dorm room in college. Apparently, management had never heard that cleanliness is next to godliness or they were worshiping at some other church. And the overflow of travelers was overflowing everything else.

It was still snowing hard and was now about two feet deep. We were informed the police had closed the highway to Albuquerque. More waiting. Four hours in a truck stop in Somewhere, N.M. (sounds like a country song). Then I noticed a few trucks were moving on the highway. Rumor around the stop was the police had reopened the highway west. Good enough for me.

We jumped in the car and started driving. Now, what was interesting was that with the exception of the few trucks I had seen, no one else was leaving the truck stop. They were waiting. Waiting for the snow to stop. Waiting for the highway folks to plow. Waiting for warmer weather. A couple of hours of slow and careful driving, following the ruts created by the trucks, found us in Albuquerque where the roads were passable. We then headed south toward sunny skies.

After getting to Tucson we followed the reports of the storm and learned that the stretch of road we had been on stayed closed for four more days! They were buried under four feet of snow. Four days of being stranded in the Truck Stop of the Lost. No food and no “facilities.”

What’s Ahead?
So what did I learn? First, things are rarely as they seem — a sunny day can find a stormy night and stormy nights give way to sunny days. Things change. I also learned that if you are in charge of the traffic jam, let folks know what is happening.

Also, you have to know when to be patient. If traffic isn’t moving, chill out. But then you have to know when to make your move when the opening arrives. Don’t sit around waiting for things to get better. Sometimes they just get worse. And when you are going on a trip across open spaces, take food and water and an empty can for “recycling” them.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org