Crossing guards

Posted on September 22, 2012

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Illustration by Ben Sanders. The Big Issue, edition 416

The Big Issue has just published Crossing guards, in which I blow the whistle on life as a school-crossing supervisor here in Melbourne.

Here’s an extract:

There is no shortage of delightful moments at the crossing. A ginger-haired grade-four boy bounces his basketball across, weaving expertly between kids and parents. A kindergarten boy wearing a Superman cape pedals across on a bike with training wheels, his mother’s hand guiding him from behind. A toddler dawdles, carrying a doll. Her mother, carrying an infant, smiles and gently cajoles her daughter. High school girls smile and laugh. High school boys play it cool. Two grade-five girls carry trays of cupcakes for a classroom party. A grade-two girl shows me her certificate for being able to count to ten in Japanese.

And here’s the full story.

FOUR LANES of peak-hour traffic. Around 200 primary-school children. Plus their mums or dads or grandparents, their high school or toddler siblings, their bags and bikes and balls and scooters and skateboards. And dogs.

A few thousand cars, buses and trucks.

A set of pedestrian traffic lights with a click-click-clicking little green figure that transforms into a silent but flashing red figure.

And two blokes with whistles.

Every morning and every afternoon Barry and I look after one of the local school-crossings. It could be said the pedestrian traffic lights do most of our work – we actually leave our lollipop ‘Stop’ signs and ‘Children Crossing’ flags at home– but we still have roles to play: meeting, greeting, guarding, checking.

When the pedestrian lights go green we step towards the slowing oncoming traffic, blow our whistles (a quick two chirps) and shepherd the flock across the road. When the little green man stops clicking, replaced by the silent little red man, we check for stragglers and strays (especially wayward toddlers) and either herd them across or stop them from stepping out from the footpath.

Then we go back to our sentry spots and do it all over again. It’s a double-act, a pas de deux, a synchronised suburban dance. And there are many others like us doing it.

There are 3270 school-crossings across Australia, many of them staffed by a lone supervisor but quite a few staffed by a duo. Victoria, where I am, began staffing its school-crossings in 1975 after a series of incidents caused by drivers not stopping at school-crossings. Ironically, the number of children walking to school is thought to have declined dramatically since the introduction of staffed school-crossings in Australia in the mid 1970s, but there is still a demand for school-crossings, and for supervisors. Indeed, some crossings are busier than ever.

Because of an increase in the proportion of children being driven to school, the volume of traffic in school precincts has increased greatly. Parking directly outside schools is generally difficult, so children are often dropped off on the opposite side of the road or in surrounding streets. These children use the crossings to get to the school. And they need to be supervised. While most supervisors are older people, often retired, there have lately been younger supervisors, such as university students, taking on the council-paid role. (In New Zealand the supervisors are even younger, often school-children themselves.)

 

AT 8.15 on weekday mornings, Barry and I meet on a three-metre-wide concrete island that divides the four lanes of traffic near the local primary school. Punctuated by early arrivals, we chat about the weather, sport (Barry loves his bowls), our past jobs (Barry was in stationery for a long time, then menswear), our families, and our flock.

“Haven’t seen the high-school girl with the long green hair for a few days,” I mention before we escort a grade-four boy on his scooter.

“She might be sick,” suggests Barry when we return to the island. “Or perhaps she’s changed the colour of her hair again.”

After five minutes of chat Barry and I leave the island and park ourselves on opposite sides of the road. As people cross we exchange simple pleasantries with the passing parade. “G’day.” “Good morning.” “Hello.” “Cheerio.” “Have a good day.” “Thank-you.” “See you later.” Variations on a theme.

Then, back on the footpath, waiting for the lights again, I nod or wave to faces behind windscreens – neighbours, friends, bus-drivers, police.

I especially look forward to seeing a boy who goes to a special school in a tan-coloured bus. Seeing it turning into the main road, I sense the boy’s anticipation. As the bus passes, the boy and I wave. Then, as it heads north, I catch a glimpse of the boy looking back, his hands on the window, smiling. Maybe he waves at anybody and everybody. I like to think not.

There is no shortage of delightful moments at the crossing. A ginger-haired grade-four boy bounces his basketball across, weaving expertly between kids and parents. A kindergarten boy wearing a Superman cape pedals across on a bikewith training wheels, his mother’s hand guiding him from behind. A toddler dawdles, carrying a doll. Her mother, carrying an infant, smiles and gently cajoles her daughter. High school girls smile and laugh. High school boys play it cool. Two grade-five girls carry trays of cupcakes for a classroom party. A grade-two girl shows me her certificate for being able to count to ten in Japanese.

One morning a driver, an acquaintance, opens his window and calls out cheekily, “Get a real job!”  I don’t take offence because I know this work is a real job, with a sense of responsibility and community. It’s just that, unfortunately, it’s not full-time. Sometimes I think I could stand out here all day watching the world go by.

THIS IS my second spell. For two months in 2011 I was a reliever, working solo at different spots around the suburb. As well as my whistle and green vest I had my orange ‘Children Crossing’ flags, to hang from the red and white posts, and the orange lollipop ‘Stop’ sign. Working alone and without traffic lights is a different gig. Stepping out into tonnes of peak-hour traffic with just a stick and a whistle requires a certain faith in human nature.

But I needed a full-time job, so then I packed away everything and worked at a desk in the city for eight months. Each day I caught a bike ferry across the Yarra River, underneath the West Gate Bridge. I envied the ferryman, steering his five-metre punt over the water, often parallel with 150-metre-long container ships, watching hot-air balloons rising over the city, talking to fishermen at the jetty, talking to cyclists, even seeing – every once in a while – a seal in the Yarra.

Working the school-crossing is not dissimilar. It’s not as pretty, or as romantic, but there’s the role of go-between, of guardian. I’m new to the game, though; I’m still learning children’s names, still learning the rhythm of the traffic. For 20 years, this four-lane crossing was supervised solo by a local legend, Glenys, until she retired seven or so years back. She had a certain bearing: firm and authoritative, but quite friendly too.

Glenys knew everyone’s names. And she knew how to stop the traffic all on her own. After a purposeful stride to the middle of two lanes, she would hold up her ‘Stop’ sign, blow her whistle and then shepherd people to the traffic island. She would then stop the next two lanes and make sure everyone was safe before starting all over again.

There were no traffic lights for Glenys. There were no traffic lights in the suburb at all. The roads weren’t as busy and the school wasn’t as crowded. (It has 600 students nowadays. Barry and I see only around a third of them.)

AT 8.55am the school bell rings and above the traffic I can hear the 1960s song ‘To Sir, With Love’, by Lulu, playing through the school speakers. Given how few male primary school teachers there are these days, I wonder what the school kids make of the song.

Barry and I wait for the latecomers. The school ground empties as Lulu fades from the speakers. The traffic thins. We escort some parents back across the road. Barry checks his watch. It’s now 9.05. We nod goodbye across the four-lane road. Put our whistles in our pockets.

This afternoon we’ll dance again.

This story was published story  in edition 416 of The Big Issue (25 Sep to 8 Oct 2012)

The charming illustration is by Ben Sanders, an award-winning illustrator.

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