The Crossing Guard Chronicles – Part 2

“Henry never made us do that!” complained the 10 year-old girl, staring me down as she sat on her bike.

“I know,” I answered.  “But I have to ask everyone to walk their bikes across the street.  I know you’re getting used to a new crossing guard.”

“Well, I’ve had to get used to fifth grade, too.”

“There you go.”

Whew.  A better outcome than I expected.  I never had to ask her to do this again.  This was not the case with all children.  Requiring them to dismount their bikes, scooters, and skate boards has been the trickiest challenge in this position.  The reminders diminished with time, though, and the colder weather reduced the use of these classic travel devices.

The logic that you’re more stable and balanced when walking can be understandably  lost on a child.  The freedom afforded by your own wheels is heady.  It’s a rite of passage.  In the beginning, two older boys actually rode around me, even as I stood in the crosswalk and asked them to walk their bikes across.  I began blocking the path at the start of the crosswalk, to give an undeniable signal.  After one boy rode around me a second time, I confronted him quietly and privately.   Thereafter, he alternated his time between walking his bike in the crosswalk and riding it across the street at another location.

In this “soft” authority position, though, I drew on my early childhood training and worked to balance firmness with friendliness.  This took some time, since children were were clearly used to another approach.  One morning a mother directed her daughter to dismount her bike, saying, “She’s going to make you get off anyway.”  This response was isolated, though, as parents usually reminded their children to dismount as they approached the street, and some actually thanked me for enforcing the requirement.

The reminders diminished with time as children realized the rule would not change.   I practiced offering age-appropriate compliments on their adherence.  When crossing pre-teen children, I simply thanked them quietly, to avoid drawing too much attention.  With younger school-age children, I’d say, “Wow — Olympic dismount!” or “Thanks for being cool about that rule.”  With preprimary children I’d say something like, “Great listening!” or “Good job walking your scooter across.  You can jump right back on when you get to the sidewalk.”  The very youngest children,  typically around two years of age, simply could not assimilate the rule very easily.  Combine the excitement of having just mastered the use of a scooter and the physical demand of stopping, dismounting, walking your machine across the street, and jumping back on, and you’ve got a child who is developmentally unable to respond to this time-consuming task.  The most appropriate response here is, “You are really learning how to get on and off your scooter  We’ll keep working on the walking rule.”

As a newbie in this position, this was one concrete way to build credibility, particularly when following in the footsteps of a long-time, beloved predecessor.   Building trust was the twin goal.  That only comes with the day-after-day interactions that accumulate, over time, to build a relationship.   Greeting children and parents positively each day should go without saying, but it’s the glue that cements the connections.

This effort has made managing potentially unpleasant or conflictual situations potentially less difficult.  In addition to the bike-dismount rule, I have had to stop children from entering the crosswalk before my signal, or from running around me into the street as they cross.  I have had to gently remind older children to put their phones away before crossing.

I have had to ask parents not to pick up or drop off children in the restricted zone (clearly signed, by the way).  The convenience is understandable, of course, but the danger is obvious and it creates traffic jams.  One time a mother stopped her car to beckon to her son, who was crossing, to come to her for another goodbye kiss.  I am not making this up.

I have become acquainted with about 75 children over this time, and I have learned about 60+ names.  Ninety-five per cent of children return my greeting and have happily shared their names when asked.  There are a precious few who have yet to respond to a hello.  I chalk that up to social discomfort, and never push the issue (as someone who is temperamentally cautious anyway, it only seems right).  On the other hand, I have been a bit surprised by how polite and friendly most adolescents are, with their thank-yous and returned greetings.

These daily crossings are a series of contact talks, to reference educator Daniel Gartrell.  Each single interaction is a social check-in of sorts.  In an early childhood classroom,  the teacher works to have a brief conversation with each child — on any topic.  Gartrell suggests that there be one per day per child.  It is not only a way to build  a relationship, but to gauge how a child is feeling and experiencing his world.  I try to adjust my daily greetings by age, gender, and perceived temperament.

And since children say the darndest things, allow me to share some of my favorite interactions over these last several months.

Common questions I received at the beginning of the school year included, “Are you out here all day?” and “How long do you stand here?”  Some children worried I was lonely or cold.  Two boys asked me to tell them my name again.

I receive consistent unsolicited hugs from a brother and sister (that alone is a reason to appreciate this gig).

An 8 year-old boy who, at the  start of the year needed some guidance to wait for my signal before entering the crosswalk, converses with me each morning.  We have recently developed a silent game of hide-and-seek, which involves his scooting from tree to tree as he approaches the crossing.

A kindergarten-aged girl  happily shares her plans and experiences daily.    Referring to the truck book her 18-month brother held as he sat in his stroller, she said, “It makes him happy.”   During an afternoon shift about two weeks ago, I watched her scaffold him through his first game of tag.  This morning she excitedly shared that her mother’s birthday is this coming Saturday.

One afternoon in the late fall a seventh-grade boy offered me a lilac plant  he’d grown in school.   About six weeks later he gave me a churro from a batch baked in class that day.

Not all  the sharing is joyful, and may include a mix of emotions at times.  On some days, body language conveys  that children (and parents) are battling to hold it together.  One afternoon a  third-grade boy said to me, pointing to the boy walking next to him, “This is the only friend who didn’t ditch me today.”

One boy shares happy anecdotes from the weekend and at other times worriedly describes a conflict he had during the day.   Yesterday he reported that on a recent trip he ” … got six cuts on four toes.”

A charming, energetic set of two year-old  female twins has called up laughter on several occasions.  One morning they were on the return walk home with their mother after walking older siblings to school.  No cars were in the vicinity as they entered the crosswalk.    One of them smiled, locked eyes with me, and assumed a super-hero stance, her right arm extended in the air, her hand in a fist, holding an invisible stop sign.  Nothing like a child to provide you some unvarnished feedback.  After she crossed I let her hold the stop sign, which was almost as big as she was.

One afternoon, a ten year-old girl with whom I’m familiar was approaching the crosswalk with another girl I’d not yet met.  The second girl discouraged her from crossing, suggesting that walking down the other sidewalk was a more direct route to her house.  She answered, “No, I want to cross because I like the crossing guard.”

Yes, I may wear a uniform that makes me look like the Michelin tire man.  And there are moments when I think my thumbs may be break off from the cold.   But those are teeny prices to pay for what I get from this work.  I am proud to be part of the  Crossing Guard Contingent.

It’s the best gig in town.


The Crossing Guard Chronicles – Part 1

“Did Henry die or something?” asked the 9 year-old girl as she dismounted her bike that fall morning.

I explained that the previous crossing guard had injured his leg and could no longer work, and that I was her new crossing guard.  We exchanged names, and she calmly walked her bike across the street.

My predecessor had been on the job for close to 16 years, apparently.  A tough act to follow, but I was determined to give it my best.  The ad in the local paper beckoned.  I was recently-retired from full-time work in early childhood education, and was enjoying those first heady days of transition, planning out part-time work projects, when this opportunity came along.

The book-end work shifts couldn’t be any shorter:  35 minutes in the morning and 30 in the afternoon.  Completing the requisite background check and physicals, a morning of training with a supportive police officer(along with  several hours of  repeated viewing of crossing guard training videos), and I was ready  to go.

Standard equipment, of course, includes the hard plastic, thigh-length bumblebee yellow jacket with a detachable hood scaled to fit a Frankenstein head, and a hand-held stop sign — my Crossing Guard Light Saber.  My Shero Shield. 

Necessary added supplies include a wrist-watch, for monitoring the schedule, and as needed, per weather conditions, hand-warmers (which can double as foot-warmers).

The news of my new part-time gig was met with reactions ranging from chuckles to incredulity.  Most folks expressed concern for the effects of the sub-freezing temperatures for which Chicago is so famous.  I learned, however, that the most challenging weather pattern is steady rain.  Preventing water  from drenching the throat and chest requires concerted effort, and it is nigh impossible to keep gloves from giving way to full sogginess.  Especially frigid days, on the other hand, require facial covering and constant movement, to prevent the toes from going numbn such days, I walk back and forth to keep the blood circulating, resembling a sentry on castle watch or perhaps a caged tiger.    These days have given me a new appreciation for all those who make their living outdoors, particularly during winter months.

There are patterns to each day, and yet every day is different.  It is rather quiet at the beginning and end of each shift, with the strongest clusters of children and adults crossing during the midpoint.  Both foot traffic and car traffic varies daily.   Sunny mornings are especially enjoyable, during those quiet moments just before I hear distant voices of children and families as they round a corner and approach the crossing.  As short as the shift is, it’s soothing to watch a community come to life in the morning.

The general perception of crossing guard is that of a quaint adult to be tolerated by motorists.  As a crossing guard, you are a soft authority figure.  You are not a cop, therefore you do not earn the same kind of respect or, dare I say, civility, afforded to other municipal representatives.   This is not entirely true, though, and I will discuss these ideas in Part 2 of this essay.

The work is deceptively simple, in my case.  I monitor a quiet residential street, with no traffic light.  The street is used by drivers to access a major nearby thoroughfare, especially in the morning.   The act of holding up the stop sign is determined by when a car reaches a vantage point on the street — which I determined to be the driveway of a house approximately 25 feet before the no stopping/standing zone.  I have learned over time that it is always better to err on the side of caution here — get yourself out there with that Stop Sign Saber, so that your message is clear.  Wait too long and you confuse the driver.

Another surprising lesson has been the quietness of car engines.  You must be a human periscope of sorts, as there are times when a driver has beamed himself in from another planet.  At the same time, you have to determine the intentions of a driver, which aren’t always clear, either.  Drivers can be as surprising as children are unpredictable in their behavior.   Tinted car windows add to this difficulty.

Drivers fall into several categories.

The Wavers are those passing through, when no children are in sight, but who slow down, appropriately, as they approach the crossing, and wave to me with a smile.  They are my Motorist Pals, and have a special place in my heart.  

The Speeders alternate between no reduction in speed  when the crossing is free of children and slowing down, only to gun the motor after passing through the crossing.  This is disconcerting not only for its arrogance but for those times when people cross at the far end of the street, often in the path of the Speeder. 

The Creepers slow down as children are crossing, but never come to a complete stop, inching forward right up the white lines, even as I march deliberately toward the car, jutting the stop sign at them, my arm hyper-extended, my eyes a pair of  spinning saucers. In such instances I must resist the urge to leap onto the hood to get their attention.

The Eye Rollers come to a stop as children are crossing, but they are quite put out about having to do so.  The children, adults and I have all harshed their itinerary for the day.  How dare we.

The Ego Transcendents slow to a stop as they approach the crossing zone, and often stop as they see children approaching the zone from the sidewalk.  They wait patiently, even when there is a glut of crossers.  They return my wave as I exit the street.  They are Motorist Angels.

So, while this position appears cushy, I take it seriously.  The weight of responsibility and pedestrian safety is a constant.  Two memories re-surfaced  over these months,  crystallizing that perspective.

Many years ago, following an swimming meet in Atlanta, families were crossing the street to their cars.  My brother was holding my younger sister’s hand.  In an instant, she was on the ground, having been hit and run over by a motorcyclist coasting down the middle of the street, through the crowd.  She was bruised but shaken.  (My mother slapped the stuffing out of the motorcyclist with a wet towel.)  A close call, and scary.

On a road trip to Louisville, Kentucky, I watched as  a  young boy was struck by a motorist, the impact sending him straight into the air, then  sprawled and spinning on the  ground.  He actually leapt up and ran.  Though he  was well enough to move, his face registered shock.

Perhaps this is my post-retirement contribution to society.  I am happy for some new learning,  to be supported by an exceptionally friendly police department, and to have some new friends.  After all,  the Hokey Pokey is not what it’s all about.  It’s the relationships.

That’s what we’ll explore in Part 2.