“Wait on the curb, kids. Wait until I say you can cross.” Janice, the crossing guard at Fairmount Avenue, stepped briskly into traffic, waving her sign and yelling “this means stop!” at the stray car that ignored the red “STOP” octagon she wielded.
“Okay, kids, now you can go.” I crossed with a troupe of elementary school children on their way home from school, and stopped to chat with Janice, as I often do.
“That was a close one!” she said. “These drivers, they don’t pay attention! It drives me nuts!”
“Thank you for being here,” I told her, as I have many times before. “You’re brave. I appreciate you looking out for the children.”
“Oh, yeah, they’re good kids,” she replied. “I just wish these drivers would pay attention. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
Janice stands at this busy crossing twice a day, in the wind, snow, rain, or (occasional and much appreciated) sunshine, every day that the public schools or the local Catholic school are in session. She puts her body between the kids and the cars tens of thousands of times a year.
My children have been able to walk to school by themselves since first grade because every major intersection between our house and their school has a crossing guard. Some of these crossings are tricky, especially now that so many people text while driving. I didn’t feel confident they could do it by themselves until they were ten years old. Our crossing guards give them a bit of assistance in the places they need it, so that they can have some independence and responsibility much younger than would be reasonable otherwise.
Municipalities began hiring crossing guards almost a century ago, in the 1920s, as cars became ubiquitous on the nation’s roads. Cars were a source of all kinds of disturbing new accidents, and they initially took a much greater toll on children than on adults. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, tens of thousands of people per year were killed in car accidents, and a disproportionate number of the dead were children hit while they were crossing the street or playing in the road.1 Formal adult supervision was one obvious way to address the problem.
Crossing guards were part of a much bigger social shift in how people thought about the lives and deaths of children. In colonial America, around one-fifth of children died in infancy, and older children were frequently lost to infectious illnesses and accidents. Parents tried to accept childhood deaths with religiously-infused fatalism. During the nineteenth century, parents became less willing to accept the loss of their children as God’s will, and developed an elaborate culture of mourning.
Children’s deaths were increasingly seen as more poignant and tragic than the passing of adults. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this private culture of mourning evolved into a shared, public sense that childhood deaths should be prevented, and that the community should bear some responsibility.2
Progressive reformers applied this new attitude in a variety of ways. Public health activists fought for clean milk and water supplies, and instituted classes to teach hygiene to prevent childhood diseases. Mass inoculation brought smallpox and diphtheria, common killers of children, under control. The newly-created Playground Association of America established thousands of city playgrounds to keep urban children safe and occupied. The United States Children’s Bureau tackled the problem of infant mortality. And deaths from car accidents were addressed with educational campaigns to teach children to stay out of the street and watch for cars, combined with crossing guards on school routes.3
The first system of crossing guards was put into place in Nebraska in 1923 by the Omaha Police Department in response to concerns raised by parents and the community. By the mid-1950s the rest of American had followed suit. Since then, city and suburban children have been able to take for granted that an adult will help them cross busy streets on the way to school.
My town’s crossing guards can be fierce in their role as our children’s guardians. The middle schoolers say that the crossing guard near their school carries a heavy, old-fashioned metal sign as his weapon. If a driver runs a red light or slams on the breaks as he plows into the crosswalk, the crossing guard has been known to slam the metal edge of his stop sign onto a hood or a trunk. Sonny, who sometimes rides his motorcycle to his job crossing the children down on Lafayette Avenue, gets into shouting matches with guys in trucks who ignore his directions, and reports their license plates to the police. He promises me he keeps his language clean if kids are around, though. Maggie, the crossing guard right next to the elementary school, forces recalcitrant and argumentative parents to circle the block if they obstruct the crosswalk as they line up to pick up their kids.
Fierce with the drivers, the crossing guards are firm but gentle with the kids. Anyone who steps off the curb without permission gets scolded, of course. But the crossing guards are the first to greet them in the morning, and the first to wish them a good weekend or a happy holiday when school lets out on a Friday. They hand out stickers, lollipops, and homemade treats. They are kind to me, a visually-impaired adult who appreciates a little assistance when it is available.
These crossing guards are my heroes. They love our town’s kids, and they guard them with their lives, their only armor their stop signs and their voices. They get to know the children, and they look out for them and care about them. They are the epitome of dedicated public servants, and the living representation of our collective belief, developed a century ago, that we share communal responsibility for the well-being of our nation’s children.
This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for crossing guards.
- Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 38. Return to text.
- Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child, 22-27. Return to text.
- Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child, 27-32. Return to text.