The Walsh Calendar

Robert-Walsh-walshs-wonderingsAmong the many karmic debts I’m currently paying off as a teacher is one regarding the winter solstice. This year it arrives on Sunday, Dec. 21. As a 5th grader, I was assigned to write down the dates for the start of the four seasons that year. Saddled by crippling laziness and the fact that the internet was not yet a “thing,” I decided to figure it out in my head. You know, like Galileo.

The Walsh Calendar needed only two dates: The shortest and longest days of the year. Once I had these, I merely had to work backwards. Each season lasted three months, so I started with the solstices. If the longest day of the year (summer solstice) occurred on June 21, then summer must be the long days of exposed sunshine immediately before and after. It must begin one-and-a-half months before that date and end one-and-a-half months after, so summer was May 7 to Aug. 7. It followed that winter, where the shortest day occurred on Dec. 21, must be from Nov. 7 to Feb. 7. That meant spring had to be between Feb. 8 and May 6, and autumn between Aug. 8 and Nov. 6. Easy.

I was proud I’d figured this out all by myself, like the Aztecs. Unfortunately, the Walsh Calendar actually needed a third date: The due date. I handed my project in two days after everyone else. Even worse, my teacher had expected me to use the Junior Scholastic magazine to come up with the “correct dates,” as she put it. First of all, I couldn’t be expected to conform to society’s rigid definitions of “science” or “time.” Secondly, I had used that copy of the magazine to wrap up a dead frog I’d found in the woods and I’d forgotten all about the homework. Like the Aztecs.

While trying to come up with an excuse, I stumbled upon that sweet, sweet moment when I flummoxed my teacher with a question: “If summer is summer because of the long days out in the sun, and winter is winter because the days are so short, then why shouldn’t the two solstice days be right in the middle of those two seasons?”

Mrs. Jones didn’t have an answer, and like the Church of Galileo’s time, she sought to put me under house arrest (or “detention,” as it was called), when I kept asking. I became the youngest member of the Flat Earth Society, railing against the “established” seasonal calendar that ignored my science.

My saving grace lay in the very reason Mrs. Jones finally gave me for refuting my calendar. “The coldest days of the year occur in late January, not December. The hottest days are in late July and August, not June. Now stop whining about the C on your homework and clean up your marshmallow solar system.” It had taken her days to research the flaw in my logic before shutting me down, but it was effective.

However, she’d neglected to tell me the reason for the month-long delay regarding temperature changes. I discovered it while double-checking her in my parent’s outdated encyclopedia set. I wrote it down, word for blessed word, and rushed back to school the next day to argue for a higher grade. With trembling hands, I gave her the encyclopedia’s take: “The reason behind the summer’s temperature delay between the maximum heating from the sun and the maximum temperature is that it takes time to heat up the ground. In the same way, even though the shortest day occurs in December, heat stored in the ground during winter leaks out at a gradual pace. This leaves the coldest temperatures for January rather than December.” In other words, even Nature can be a month off in dealing with her seasons … and she often turns things in late!

To this day, I believe my calendar is more logical. Who knows, global warming might eventually iron out Mother Nature’s temperature delay and the world might discover my hidden genius. Heck, even Mrs. Jones eventually raised my grade to a C+. On the other hand, I no doubt had a hand in her decision to retire at the end of that year. I think of her every time a student tries to explain why handing something in late shouldn’t result in a lower grade. Every now and again I’ll give in — a silent apology for that obnoxious kid she had to put up with. After all, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and the days just keep getting shorter …

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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