“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.