As the snow started coming down last night, I kept waiting to see if my classes would be canceled for today. I kept checking the news sites that listed school closings, but no sign of Villanova among the dozens of schools listed. My wife found out that her school was closed mid-evening, but I went to bed with no idea whether we would have school or not. Finally, at 5:15 in the morning, I got the text announcing that the University was closed. I’ll admit it, I felt like a little kid again…
It brought back memories of listening to the radio (KYW1060) during a snow storm when I was kid, waiting to see if they would announce my school. Back then, they used to announce your school by number, and while I don’t remember my grade school snow number, my high school number was 472. (Pat B.H., Joe D., Joe G., Kathy K.L. – do you happen to remember what our grade school number was?)
Here’s what it used to sound like, with my school announced at about 30 seconds into the clip:
While this was only a two-hour delay, it was better than no delay.
It was quite a stressful way to start your day, sitting there listening in anticipation of hearing your school’s number. The most painful experience would be when they announce numbers “… 468, 469, 470, 471, 473, 474…”
Wait – WHAT JUST HAPPENED? They didn’t say our number! Was it a mistake? Did the announcer inadvertently skip over it? Had the principal forgot to call it in? Now we would have to wait up to half an hour until they read the list again. And if it was skipped again, well, it was off to school.
Apparently, the use of numbers, instead of school names, started in the 1960s, and continued until 2017. At that point, schools could use technologies like robocalls, the Internet, and text messages to announce their closings. Reading the school numbers took up to 14 minutes of air time each hour, so that freed up the stations to focus on other news.
It just doesn’t have the same feel; I can imagine hundreds of thousands of kids sitting around their radio back in the late 1960s and 1970s, just like me, waiting to see if they had just received one of life’s greatest gifts – an unexpected day off from school.
Here’s an amusing account from a weather reporter at the great Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper of his personal experience with the school closing numbers:
At the outset, I’m on record as saying that I always viewed school as a minimum-security prison with a liberal weekend-furlough policy. And once I discovered that snow could close school, I was hooked on winter for life. No matter what winter would bring, nothing – absolutely nothing – could match the ritual of listening to the radio and waiting for that magic snow number.
Not hearing it on a snowy day was an icy dagger to the heart, especially when it sounded like everyone else was off.
But, oh, what unbounded bliss when your number was called … better than hitting the lottery … better than your horse winning the race… better than anything the devil offered to Dr. Faust.
Our sons inherited this particular passion, and it was the source of a profound family-bonding experience.
On even quasi- snowy mornings, no matter how hopelessly, we would gather in front of the radio and wait for KYW to commute their sentences for a day or deliver the crushing verdict by skipping over our number.
Somehow, seeing the number on the school website or the cable channel just isn’t the same.
I miss those radio days. For I had a particularly personal relationship with snow numbers, and not just for the reasons mentioned above.
Once upon a time, I was responsible for them. It was a dream mission.
As a fresh hire at the United Press International bureau in Philadelphia, one of my tasks was to assemble the school-closing numbers whenever it snowed.
In those days, before KYW, City Hall would transmit the numbers via teletype to the wire services, and we would transcribe them and distribute them to our broadcast subscribers, who would read them on the air.
On the first real snow day that I worked, I was astonished at just how many minimum-security prisons existed in the area.
The snow that day was a surprise. It started right before schools were to open, and superintendents and principals were caught with their boots off.
The numbers from City Hall kept pouring in.
Then the bureau manager, the guy who hired me, gets a call from the manager of a rock station, the one that all the kids listened to, and one that had been threatening to drop UPI.
The radio guy said the superintendent of the Wissahickon School District was all over him because he just heard on his station that all his schools were closed. They were, indeed, very much open. What the hell was going on?
I admit I knew nothing about the Wissahickon School District; I thought maybe it was in the Wissahickon Valley. I didn’t know it had several schools and something like 5,000 pupils.
Well, it turns out that I had transposed a number. Big deal, I say to the boss. What about the hundreds of numbers I got right. Besides, I just gave thousands of kids a day off from school.
He had a volcanic temper that belied a patient heart, and this did nothing to tame the veins evident on his scarlet forehead.
First, you realize we’re about to lose a client, he said. Second, because of the number you got wrong, we’ve got an angry school district on our hands.
Being a compulsive wise guy , I responded that I had just made a round of police checks, and came up with no reports of fatals. I believe I saw a vein pop.
Just to appease him further, a few days later a local paper actually wrote a story about the slip-up. When he saw it, his forehead would have been a mighty efficient snow-removal device.
He told me he called the newpaper’s editor and stood up for me, telling that clown that the story was humiliating to UPI and the reporter.
Wisely declining to push my luck, I suppressed an impulse to say that I didn’t feel that way in the least. I was proud of the accidental misuse of power.
To this day, I have no regrets. My nieces and nephews saw the story and thought I was a god.
And every time snow was in the forecast, a teacher friend would call and say, ‘Couldn’t you make just one little mistake?’ “
So it wasn’t just me that hearing your school number was music to the ears…