Muharram: Better Than a Snow Day

When we served as school administrators in Cleveland a decade ago, with Audrey as Principal of a school with Cleveland’s western border on its campus and Brian as President of a school with Cleveland’s eastern border on its campus, we both had the dubious honor of making the decision to close school or not for snow days. Laying between our schools (i.e., as Brian drove from our west side home to his east side campus) was a snow line for “lake effect snow” off Lake Erie that tended to dump more prodigious amounts of snow on Brian’s school than on Audrey’s. Yet, more often than not we made the same decisions about closing our schools or leaving them open. That is because – as in subsequent years we explained to our warmer climate staff and students in Louisiana, Arizona, and ultimately Casablanca – in Cleveland we rarely closed school for snow. Rather, we closed school for COLD. Good municipal planning and operations let snow plows keep roads in good shape so buses could pick up children and deliver them safely to school even with a couple feet (or a half meter) of snow in the ground; but woe be unto the school administrator who expects little darlings to wait for the school bus in the cold!

The magic number for defining “cold” was -20°F (-29°C). And so each winter we participated in a game, of sorts, with each other and with school administrators across the Cleveland metropolitan area. When meteorologists made predictions of a big snowfall with dropping temperatures, a buzz electrified the city as people wondered, “Will we have to go to school tomorrow?” Certainly students conducted the electricity that fueled that buzz; but, just as much, so did teachers and administrators. (The only people NOT excited about snow days were the parents who knew they would have to spend an hour stuffing children into layers of snow attire; then make hot chocolate while kids played in the snow; then spend an hour peeling layers of snow attire off children crying because of their frost-bitten fingers, toes, and noses; then clean up spilled hot chocolate while children cried because they burned their tongues; then spend an hour stuffing children into layers of snow attire…)

Through the day people would ask, “Do you think we will have school tomorrow?” Inquisitiveness would grow into eager hope, with students and teachers alike wondering if homework needed to be done or tests needed to be graded. Administrators would remind everyone to check the news at night and again in the morning to get the latest word on whether to come to school the next day. SMS messaging was just coming into its own, letting people subscribe to an “alert” system that sent text messages to people subscribing for different schools. We would check to make sure we had our Snow Folders with school phone tree lists and contact numbers for television and radio stations in anticipation of making The Call.

Then the game would begin. The first stage of the game: The Wait. No one, including administrators, wants to go to school the next day; yet, everyone has to pretend normalcy through the evening in case The Call never gets made and everyone has to go to school the next day. Simultaneously, everyone watches through windows as snow accumulates outside and temperatures drop.

The second stage: The Inquisition. As minutes and hours tick by, everyone wants to know with growing fervor, “Are you going to close school?” Emails, phone calls, neighbors, our own children, even each of us asking the other, “Well, are you?” Into the void left by no answer falls wild speculation and rumor; but still no answer comes.

Because each administrator knows what comes next in the third stage of the game: The Anticipation. No administrator wants to be the first to close school. He or she knows that parents pay attention to these things, and that parents who otherwise would complain about their little darlings having to wait for the school bus in the cold will just as quickly second guess administrators for closing school “too early”; and no one wants to wear the cognomen “Weather Whimp” among peers. Our family lore preserves Audrey’s first year as a Cleveland principal when, in early October, she saw a few flurries wafting down and, brimming with excitement, promptly got on her school’s intercom with the all-school announcement, “Look outside…IT’S SNOWING!!!” The native Clevelanders saw the five snowflakes and said to their new principal, with a mix of amusement and endearment, “That’s not snow.” Audrey resolved then and there never to be the first to close her school. Nor did anyone else want that tied to them. So, with more snow falling and temperatures dropping further…-14…-17…-18, we would watch news flashes on the half hour, knowing every other school administrator also sat with eyes glued to the updated scrolling lists of municipalities that showed no closed schools.

The big update always came at 10:00, serving as the transition to the final stage: The Avalanche. With a blanket of white outside and thermometers dancing close to -20 but not quite dropping that far, parents let children whose bedtimes were 8:00 stay up to watch the start of the 10:00 news, knowing it would begin with the updated school closings. Children’s hopes were dashed, and administrators watched with equal disappointment as the first scroll through the region showed no closures. Then as the scroll bar at the bottom of the television screen began its continuous loop again, a school or two in the hinterlands would appear and break the jam that held everyone else back from making The Call. Both of us, along with administrators everywhere, would grab phones and give the special codes that closed our buildings for the next day. As the third round of scrolling began, the avalanche of closures would fill the list, school staff phone trees would go into action, and cheerful rejoicing would spread across Cleveland and up to the heavens with prayers of thanksgiving from students, teachers, and administrators alike. Audrey even had a little snow dance she would do.

Which, with seeming illogic, brings us to last night in Casablanca, Morocco. Islamic countries follow a lunar calendar. Holidays like the Islamic New Year celebration at the inception of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar) to mark the start of Hijri 1440 (Islamic year 1440) begin when the first crescent of the new moon becomes visible. Astronomical science may make calculations, but in Morocco the holy month of Muharram does not begin until the moon appears and imams across the land make The Call. At our school, we actually have the very devout mother of one staff member serve as the conduit for this important information from imams to us.

Our published school calendar marked Muharram on Wednesday this week, with the asterisk that it might fall on Thursday instead. In anticipation of it this week, people made contingency plans: If Muharram’s start falls on Thursday instead of on Wednesday then we will follow on Wednesday the schedule we otherwise would have followed on Thursday, and vice versa. But yesterday we heard titterings about the possibility of the new moon peeping out on Monday night instead of on Tuesday or Wednesday night. Together we fell back into old ways and old anticipations, with all the growing eagerness through the afternoon and into the evening that it might come early. We had all the institutional messaging set to go out to parent and staff stakeholders by SMS and email. We just had to wait for The Call.

And so we waited.

Like most evenings, we watched from our balcony as the sun dissolved into the Atlantic and washed its dissipated color into the clouds. We heard the Call to Prayer in stereo from the mosques north and south of our campus. And we waited for Audrey to receive an email or text with news from the devout staff mother.

People called and texted and emailed, “Any word yet about school tomorrow?” Not yet.

Charlotte, who planned to phone tree news to her classmates once The Call came, had gone out with friends a bit before sundown and texted asking for news. No news. She had a vested interest in Muharram starting last night, because no school today would mean she could stay out later last night. She texted again. Still no news.

And then it came. Audrey received the email our longer-than-expected wait had led us to fear: No moon.

Let them know we’ve got school tomorrow,” she said with deflation, and the first texts to top administrators started to go out with a heavy resolution to disappointment in doing what any other day would have been an energizing day at GWA. Audrey texted Charlotte to share the news and tell her to come home. Brian started looking over his Tuesday schedule to see what evening preparations he needed to complete.

But then, just like the second round of scrolling on the eve of a sub-zero blizzard in Cleveland, when hopes initially dashed resuscitate as the thing the eyes so long to see appears, another email arrived with updated news: THE CRESCENT MOON HAD APPEARED! As we heard the mosques around us start their New Year calls, Audrey pulled the trigger on our SMS and other messaging to GWA’s families and staff. Then she texted Charlotte to present the update’s hairpin turn. At first, Charlotte did not know whether her mother was teasing her, then rejoiced in being able to channel the news to her friends. She sent Audrey a snap with a tear of happiness gliding down her cheek because she did not have to come home early. (Oh, to be a high school Senior with such cares.) As word spread, an avalanche of celebrations cascaded across the cyber land in emails, texts, snaps, and calls. One administrator texted to ask if we could still have admin meetings scheduled for today…Nope. Audrey smiled broadly and said aloud, “It’s officially Snow Dance time!

But this is better than a snow day. Brian has no snow to shovel. We have gorgeous weather instead of freezing temperatures. People can go hiking and surf, both of which we have no doubt GWA faculty and staff are doing today. The municipal coffers in Hay Hassani, the south side Casablanca neighborhood that GWA calls home, need not be depleted by overtime paid to snow plowers keeping the roads clear (unless they were clearing them of horses and dogs and cats and chickens and turkeys and donkeys and sheep). Instead of being shut up in our house, huddled around a fire to keep warm, we can go out to a matinée movie at Morocco Mall’s IMAX theater on English Movie Tuesday (which we planned to do until we saw the current film is about a megalodon that appears from the depths of the ocean to attack a submarine and menace the deep blue waters…No thanks). Best of all, no one can criticize the administration’s decision based on differing views of whether there was enough snow or it was cold enough. The moon appeared…mic drop.

And so we have a very pleasant Saturday cleverly disguised as Tuesday. The start of Muharram took us back last night to midwestern winters and the school closing game; but this is better than a snow day. We appreciate the midweek break, especially coming earlier than we had expected, and we wish our Muslim friends and coworkers Happy New Year.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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