Thursday, December 08, 2005

One lump or two?

I just finished reading an entry by blog buddy nzforme concerning a charitable web site called Donors Choose. It got me reminiscing, fueled by the plight of the third grade teacher and her freezing students ... along with AOL's all day CD Marathon of "Working Class Hero" in honor of the death of John Lennon twenty-five years ago today.

Back in the days when I was in first and second grade, I attended class in a one room stone and mortar schoolhouse which housed two grades. Being Pennsylvania, it had a coal boiler and big old steam radiators that banged and thrashed as they heated up in the morning,letting out the most amazing and terrifying screeches, cracks and bangs as the heat would rise from the bowels of Hell (better known as"the cellar" -- a Stygian swamp of a place that only the teacher and repairmen were allowed into-- it's where she buried the kids that were so bad she had to kill them. Really.)

Now, I remember many the morn, when the bus dropped us off, that walking into the schoolroom was akin to total immersion in the big freezers at the co-op food lockers in town (back in those days, only the richest folks had a separate freezer. You rented space in a big walk-in freezer and would make a trip once or twice a month to pick up food to stash in your icebox at home, usually tied into grocery shopping when you'd also drop off food for storage). There was no helping it. The damned fools at the school board had ordered the teacher to lower the thermostat to 50 degrees every afternoon at 2:00 PM. It wasn't to be raised until a half hourbefore class was to commence to 70 degrees.

Sounds like a nice, conservative method of keeping school heating costs in check, doesn't it? It does not take into consideration the“flywheel effect.” Namely, this was a 200+ year old schoolhouse made of stone and mortar with a plaster coat on the inside. No insulation. Lots and lots of leaky old single pane glass windows. The school was wide open to the harsh winds of winter on the North and West. That building never got warm in winter. By the time you'd start feeling the heat, it was time to turn off the boiler (set the thermostat back) and go home. Complaining didn't do a lick of good. But I'll tell you what did.

Seems a new member was elected to the school board and her daughter attended the second grade at that schoolhouse with me. I think her name was “Connie” and she was a frail, pitiful-looking thing. When she developed pneumonia after being unable to shake a fall cold, suddenly the order regarding turn back of the thermostat was rescinded. And the rest of that year was spent in the relative comfort of 65°F. (the compromise temperature), much warmer than we'd been the year before. And we didn't use any more coal than the prior year! Seems the old boiler didn't have to work as hard maintaining a constant moderate temperature as opposed
to overcoming the set back temperature every morning. Oh, it was chilly on Monday mornings (they turned it back over the weekend) but that was a small price to pay for the relative comfort the rest of the time.

Now, before you go exploding with indignation over the potential faults in my memory of events that occurred when I was 7 years old,the story was retold to me in my teens when on a long trip to Virginia with my mother. And she remembered all of the details,because we had to provide a 100 pound bag of coal each month, just like all the other families at the school (that amounted to a bit over a ton of coal each month – only a portion of what was needed to heat that place!) I only know what was told to me, but I trust the source implicitly. Even if she's not around to confirm the details, it was probably one of the first “grown-up”conversations I ever had with my mother and as such, never to be forgotten.

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