Fellow Puccini-lovers will recall the passage in Act IV of La Bohème where the philosopher Colline—desperate to raise money for the dying Mimì's medical care—takes leave of his trusty overcoat, which in sorrow he must consign to the pawnbroker. A similar song of farewell involuntarily springs to my lips as I abandon the vocation of school crossing guard, which has been mine since 2016.
Already I have addressed TAC readers twice (here and here) on the splendors and distresses of this vocation. I therefore fear seeming like the proverbial tenor in the fifth-rate theater who, moved to repeat performances by audience cries of “Encore! Encore!” had his ego appropriately deflated by the audience member who shouted: “Encore! And keep doing it until you get it right!” But repetition is the journalist’s occupational hazard, and the best that he can hope for is to avoid those “vain repetitions” against which the Bible warns us.
I would love to be able to announce, in best misery-memoir style, that my six years at the crosswalk were a nightmarish catalogue of sadistic schoolteachers and my own perpetually affronted victim-hood. At the risk of disappointing both remaining believers in the veracity of Angela’s Ashes, I must record that my six years were nothing of the sort. On the contrary, for almost all the time, I much enjoyed (and felt privileged to perform) my daily interactions with members of the public, keeping them—especially the children among them—secure, and seeking to uphold my wider social responsibility for nurturing those “little platoons” of which Burke wrote.
In general, I shall miss the kids. Not only the young chap who greeted me, as I mentioned in an earlier article, with the unforgettable words “Hello, Lollipop Dude,” but numerous others.
Of course, a substantial minority of the parents will be eminently unmissable. They, in general, constituted far more of a disciplinary problem than the youngsters did. When not burbling away to unseen audiences while wearing earbuds or stabbing cellphones with manicured fingers while oblivious to the internal-combustion engines careening around them, NASCAR-like, they appeared largely to have abandoned parenthood in favor of buddy status. (Stove’s Fifth Law: Any mother who parts from her offspring with the quotidian words “Love you to the moon and back” has probably acquired permanent residence in the Rousseauist funny farm.)
Nor will I miss such sartorial horrors as the one of which a February 2017 diary entry reminds me. On that occasion I reported learning that multicolored Bo Derek hair-braids from the early Thatcher epoch had come to be considered an entirely legitimate fashion statement by at least one boy. Still, into each Bo-Derek-haunted life some rain must fall. The same diary entry records the parking, opposite the school, of a car with a bumper-sticker proclaiming the driver’s membership in—wait for it—a Jacobite memorial group. One hopes that its members manage to avoid Bonnie Prince Charlie’s latter-day levels of booze consumption.
I likewise make relieved adieux to those pencil-necked Green-voting dads who sport T-shirts assuring the beholder “This is a feminist,” and who even look like the Greens’ egregiously vexillophobic parliamentary leader, Adam Bandt. One reason I seemed to get on particularly well with certain kids was the sheer novelty to those kids of a firm, resonant baritone voice (my own) giving unambiguous commands apropos the traffic. Greenie dads not only won’t give commands, but they cultivate a vocal querulousness evoking Jerry Seinfeld with a clothes-peg on his nose. A dispiritingly high proportion of Greenie dads were cyclists, presumably convinced that any crossing guard’s attempt to direct traffic constituted “fascism.”
More comfortingly, I think of the family from, of all places, the Canary Islands. Before the family’s last Easter in Melbourne, its smallest juvenile member handed me a small bag which turned out to contain Easter eggs and the following generous note: “Thank you very much to our crossing supervisor for his kindness and for keeping us safe through the term. Que Dios te bendiga.”
I think of the tiny schoolgirl (perhaps six years old) who, on my last day of the 2021 summer term, trilled “Merry Christmas, thank you for keeping us safe.” Whereupon she insisted on handing me a gift-wrapped Yuletide package.
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I think of the optimistic French mother who, waiting to traverse one of Melbourne’s noisiest and most charmless suburban arterial roads, assured her young son that “C’est comme les Champs-Élysées!” (Shades of a French diplomat, stuck during the 1930s in Iron Guard-dominated Romania. World-weary even by the standards of his nation and métier, he told the historian Sir Charles Petrie: “Bucharest has been called the Paris of the East, but nobody, thank God, has ever called Paris the Bucharest of the West.”)
During July, I am scheduled to begin an especially demanding full-time job as media assistant to Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Center. I will, need one say, mightily strive to vindicate this employer’s vote of confidence in me. Yet a part of me will forever be nostalgic for the miserably foggy winter mornings, amid which I kept my crosswalk vigils, braving the elements in that fluorescent yellow uniform which made me look for all the world like a mysteriously ambulant banana.
The next time you see a school crossing guard, give that guard a collegial “Ave atque vale” on my behalf. Or, to adapt Jimmy Buffett’s great aphorism about the non-ringing phone: “If the whistle don’t toot, you’ll know it’s me.”