“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.