Whitney Gorton, ’04, is a middle school English teacher who has lived in Chicago for nearly three years. The school she teaches at was closed Jan. 30 and 31 due to the temperature, which reached more than 20 degrees below zero. Within days, it was 65 degrees warmer.

Q: Have you experienced weather like this before?

A: Oh, God no. I grew up in California, and then I moved to Texas and lived in Houston for eight years.

Q: Did you do anything to prepare for the low temperature?

A: No, it’s not like in Texas when we would have really big storms or hurricanes, and there was a sense of impending disaster and that there was going to be a lot of destruction.

In Chicago, it’s this feeling that this weather is another member of the family — something everyone talks about and everyone can relate to.

My mom (history teacher Sue Nellis) kept telling me, “Don’t go outside,” and I told her, “I don’t plan to!” No one (goes outside); everybody’s in this together. Everybody just hunkers down — it’s a sense of coziness rather than things are going to be scary, as long as you’re safe indoors.

It’s scarier if you’re homeless. Cities opened up a bunch of warming centers, and it’s free of charge to get to a warming center on the bus.

Q: How did this experience differ from your time in California and Texas?

A: In Texas in the summer, we’d actually have cooling centers, so I’ve (now) lived in two extremes — it’s too hot and people could die, and it’s too cold and people could die.

Q: What else did the city do to help people?

A: Parking in Chicago is a beast, so there were businesses that were opening up their parking lots so people could theoretically park more easily or closer than they might normally, (because) if you’re out for longer than a certain amount of time, you could get frostbite.

There was a real sense that the city just bands together and that we’re going to get through this together.

Q: Have you had these cold days before?

A: I work at an independent school like Country Day, and I’ve been here two years, and my understanding is it’s more common to have a cold day rather than a snow day. We do get snow, but we don’t get enough snow that they have to close the school.

Somebody said they’ve been at this school for 14 years, and they only ever remember cold days happening every couple years. And I don’t think they’ve seen temperatures this low since the 1960s in Chicago.

It has to be really, really cold (to cancel school). We were in school on Monday, and the high was 4 degrees. Everybody still goes to school and work when it’s single digits — it’s really when it starts to drop down significantly in the negatives (that school is canceled), and the wind chill makes it that much colder.

On Wednesday, a lot of things just closed down — they didn’t deliver mail. And nobody went outside on Wednesday.

Q: Was it a scary experience?

A: If I had to go to work, I would probably be a little more nervous. But honestly, there were so many places that told people to work from home. I felt bad for people who didn’t have a choice, like emergency personnel. Those are the folks that you’re just so grateful for that they went to work.

(Also), I wasn’t worried because you know ahead of time (about the cold weather). It’s not something that creeps up on you, so you can plan ahead.

It was probably hardest on people who have really little kids, but for people who don’t mind being inside — I could probably live indoors and be all right — it was pretty good.

Q: Was there anything unexpected?

A: The inside of our windows was icy because it was so cold on the outside. We thought there was something wrong with the window, and my husband’s friend is a home inspector and told us that’s totally normal. That was definitely surprising.

And a bunch of us did experiments where we threw boiling water outside and it just turns into snow. At one point, I just wanted to feel it — having that level of cold is so foreign to me — so I put my face outside, and I was like, “Wow! That’s real cold!”

By Allison Zhang

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