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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Crossing guards

On TV and movies, school crossing guards are always adults, usually some semi-retired guy that holds up a stop-sign-on-a-stick to halt traffic and allow the wee ones to safely get to a new curb. I’ve never experienced this phenomenon myself. When I went to school crossing guards were kids, usually grade 5. Those little volunteers are still out there (well, new ones, obviously the original ones have long grown up) helping a new generation of chickens cross the road.
As a kid, I hated the little tyrants. How dare they tell me when to cross! I know when to cross. Look both ways, check for cars and passing tractors, then cross. It’s not that hard. The resentment grew particularly strong once I hit grade 6 and was older than the guards. They’re kids! Am I supposed to listen to someone a whole year younger than me? It goes against all the rules of the schoolyard. A complete disregard of the eternal childhood pecking order in which any kid is allowed to torment, tease, bully and generally be evil to any other child even a single grade younger. Size was irrelevant. Your grade was everything. So it was particularly galling to have these punks dictate my street-crossing schedule to me. Tiny little fascists in training, I remember thinking.
Then time does its usual trick and you get older. As with so many things, my perception of crossing guards changed. Now I think they’re adorable. The ones at my son’s school are exceptionally well-trained. It’s like watching a miniature para-military operation in action, and it amuses me every time.
Four little soldiers march out with flags and orange vests. Establishing their beachhead is the tricky part, where they must rely entirely on the actual cross-walk signal to flash and stop cars. They make sure all vehicles have come to a full and complete stop before they begin their advance. With bold strides they move out into unknown territory, crossing in single file, waving their flags in a waist-high figure-eight pattern. A soldier takes his/her position on the curb, two on the median, one on either side of the street. It is those two isolated warriors that are the most vulnerable: they have no one to talk with or consult and must take all clues on how to proceed from the median guards.
A child wants to cross. The outlying guard bellows “KID!” The cry is echoed by his compatriots. In the centre, on the median, the guards place their hands over the cross-walk signal buttons, but DO NOT YET PRESS. Instead they begin to reconnoiter. A pair of eyes are glued to each side of the street, watching for oncoming traffic. When one side has achieved a sufficient gap that would allow for safe deployment, that soldier begins the call: “YES!” Then his partner shouts back either affirmation or denial until both agree that all is clear. They have an excellent rhythm and volume while doing this. Yes, No, Yes, No, Yes, No, Yes, YES! Cross-walk buttons are pushed. Lights flash.
Flags waving, each takes three steps onto the road. They face oncoming traffic, legs slightly spread, arms wide, willing two-ton machines of death to a halt by sheer bravado. Children cross, sheltered in the orange vests of their guardians.
When the first bell rings, a scout is sent to see if more children are approaching around the nearest corner. If there are, the soldiers wait. If there aren’t, the soldiers begin their retrograde action (a retreat, to a civilian). When the last kid has crossed, their captain yells “Coming in with this!” Each guard repeats the mantra to ensure they all heard the order. Then they return in single file to safety, flags waving, mission accomplished. No casualties, no man left behind.
While my language of description might be a little florid, I have accurately described the near-military precision of the process. It’s really quite a sight. For those who haven’t had the privilege to witness the procedure, take some time out to do so.
A little advice? Watch once or twice. Don’t come every day. Adults watching kids that aren’t their own gets a little creepy after a while.

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