Burke and My Vocation in the Crosswalk
When all night long a chap remains
On sentry-go, to chase monotony,
He exercises of his brains
(That is, assuming that he’s got any).
Though never nurtured in the lap
Of luxury, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap
And think of things that would astonish you.
—Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe, Act II
There is a reason why a Google search for the phrase “When I grow up I want to be a school crossing guard” elicits precisely one entry on the whole planet. Even the most generously endowed libraries of high-school careers counselors do not exactly abound in pamphlets, let alone textbooks, on School Crossing Guardianship For Fun And Profit. The profession has no tiger moms demanding that their offspring be admitted to it. Nor do Borscht-belt comedians intersperse their jokes about “my son the doctor”—in Bob Dylan’s early days of fame it used to be “my son the folksinger”—with “my son the school crossing guard.”
Nonetheless, as I approach the end of my first term in the role, I can only wish that I had assumed it much earlier in my life. Although I will never grow rich from it, I could very easily grow happy in it.
Yet let no reader conclude that being a crossing guard constitutes an easy gig, or a gig that rewards the slumming mindset. There is a genuine and dexterous art to it, an art for which it probably helps if you were in your previous life a dancer, a drum-major, an altar-server for the Tridentine Mass, or (the reason for this will emerge in a moment) an orchestral conductor.
I did not seek out the job. An agency recommended it to me. Training involved, first, watching a DVD screened by the organization that acted as go-between for the agency and, at the other end, for the appropriate municipal authority in suburban Melbourne. Then the training involved completing a written exam for which—get this, all you pampered products of self-esteem-based creches masquerading as universities!—the lowest permissible pass mark was 16/20. (I scored a 17, should you care.) The third and last part of training was an hour actually on the relevant street, under the notably acute eye of a supervisor, and with real-life elementary-school students (we in Australia say “primary school”) to serve as, so to speak, guinea-pigs.
Was that scary or what?
There is so much which you have to remember as a novice crossing guard. Of course you must arrive at your shift in plenty of time, and must have ascertained that both the STOP sign and the safety-flags are accessible at the school itself. The fluorescent uniform must be unsullied. You must wear a hat, not least to avoid sunburn. (No municipal hat seems to be manufactured in my size, so faute de mieux I sport my own fedora.) In your pocket must repose a pen and a notebook, for the specific purpose of writing down the number-plate of any car whose driver takes a Dukes of Hazzard approach to road-safety. Your working-with-children card from the Justice Department must be produced upon demand, and must be either carried in your jacket, or else safely stored on school property with your other belongings. You must hold the STOP sign at a 45-degree angle in front of you while you stride to the mid-point of the zebra-crossing.
Then you must blow your whistle twice: toot-toot. Except if an emergency has occurred, whereupon you must blow the whistle once and lengthily, as a danger signal. It is all too simple to forget that the whistle is on your person at all, and to rummage around frantically for it in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Meanwhile, amid the relevant manual spasms, the STOP sign, about the size of a lance, is apt to fall from your other hand and crash metallically to the asphalt.
The above assumes that both drivers and pedestrians avoid being sociopaths, an assumption largely but by no means wholly true. At any moment, moreover, the municipal overseers can make unannounced visits to your school crossing, and can carry out on your attire the sort of inspection which (by some, doubtless exaggerated, accounts) General Tojo himself might have thought unduly pedantic.
Perhaps that all strikes you as redolent of a sinecure. If you really think it is, you would be better off running for Congress.
As so often is the case when one’s work brings one into daily contact with small children, one soon finds that a majority of them have a courtesy that would do credit to adulthood, while a sizable minority of the actual adults have a puerility which might better suit a kindergarten. This school crossing is in an extremely rich (and necessarily unnamed) suburb, the sort of place where the standard approach to the social contract would probably consist of breakfast-time soliloquies like “I wonder what the peasants are doing.”
You have never seen so many Volvos, Mercs, Jaguars, BMWs, Bentleys, and ostentatiously hip Land Rovers being driven down one modest side-street in the whole of your natural life. The one time I saw a humble Mazda, I experienced the momentary but almost overwhelming feeling that Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation had hit town.
At first I kept believing that the kids were being shepherded over the zebra-crossing by their nubile older sisters. Then I discerned that I was showing my age: the shepherdesses were really the kids’ mothers. Most are entirely polite. Perhaps a tenth of them stare straight past you, every shift, every day, without fail. As every sailor, cop, or hotel chambermaid knows, you need only don a uniform for plenty of people to believe that you are quite literally invisible.
Sometimes, when not a single pedestrian arrives for 15 or 20 minutes, I derive the distinct impression of being on the dark side of the moon. Or—given the Tojo allusion above—of resembling the famous Japanese soldier whom the Philippines’ jungles disgorged in 1974, and who indignantly disputed treacherous rumors that Hirohito had surrendered back in 1945.
That forms the worst part of the job: the introspection and rumination which can kick in amid the absence of either pedestrian or automobile traffic. (See the Gilbert and Sullivan extract cited at the start.) As to what forms the best part of the job, it is twofold.
In the first place, it supplies regular human contact, so easy to be deprived of when you live alone and especially if you have been forced for years to slave over a laptop. Maybe 10 or 15 years hence, Silicon Valley’s mavens will have worked out how to automate the guard’s function so totally that it can be effected by a robot. But only a bookmaker with pronounced masochistic streaks would offer long odds on that outcome.
In the second place, life as a school crossing guard really is a zero-sum game. Were you to be caught out by the inspectors while holding the STOP sign upside down, you could not bluff your way out of the resultant imbroglio by saying “Ah, but that’s just your imperialist racist sexist heteronormative cisgendered perception of the STOP sign being upside down.” The inspectors would simply fire you.
Guarding a school crossing is a good job for any Burkean. Upon your consciousness it imposes an awareness of laws, customs, duties, and, in a modest way, ceremonies. It prohibits, thank God, being “creative.”
Have you ever pondered, in this connection, why the crossing guard will not let drivers traverse the crossing even after pedestrians, juvenile and otherwise, appear to be out of the drivers’ way? There is a sound statutory reason for that. Between the zebra-crossing and the curb, on each side of the road, can be found a white line which serves as the equivalent of Korea’s DMZ. It is not solely while pedestrians are on the road that the crossing guard is, by law, in loco parentis; it is also while they are off the road but not yet over the line.
From the beginning the instructor ordered me: “Don’t look at their [the pedestrians’] faces, look at their feet.” Drivers, even those most noisily convinced that there is a clear pedestrian-free path in front of them, are obliged to wait until the white line is crossed by the last pedestrian’s second foot. Or, if the pedestrian is a millipede, by his 1,000th foot.
Still more Burkean, and in the context of the whole Western Enlightenment Project still more unmentionable, is the central truth of the crossing guard’s raison d’être. For that tiny little zebra-crossing, for that minuscule equivalent to the 1930s’ Danzig Corridor, the crossing guard is the embodiment of—trigger-warning: the English language’s filthiest, most obscene word is imminent—authority.
A crossing guard is not hired to be democratic. He is not hired to empathize. He is not hired to carry out “ecumenical dialogue” with (or to proffer “non-judgmental” “sensitivity training” of) the amphetamine-crazed road-hog who is 1.37 seconds away from flattening three schoolkids beneath the eight wheels of his truck. He is not hired to have “deep and meaningful relationships” with the parents, with the teachers, or with the school administrators. And if he has “deep and meaningful relationships” with the kids, then in very short order he will come to the censorious attention of the Vice Squad.
He must be friendly but impersonal, amiable but conscientious, empirical but law-abiding. Which is as neat a definition as I can imagine of Burke’s entire worldview. The local council does not hire the crossing guard to be a simpering, glad-handing invertebrate.
No, the council hires the crossing guard to show responsibility, punctuality, and leadership. To proclaim by his every official action that “the buck stops here.” To furnish for road-users the kind of guidance and direction which a conductor furnishes for orchestral players. In short, to be—at least for the duration of weekday work-shifts, and purely for the compass of, let me repeat, one tiny little zebra-crossing—a monarch.
And you wonder why I’d now feel reluctant to be employed anywhere else.
R.J. Stove is the author ofCésar Franck: His Life and Times.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.