Written by Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer-Black on 6 November, 2013
On a temperate autumn day like this, Joe Gold loved his job. The air was crisp, but not cold, carrying the heady scent of turning leaves and overripe apples. Vibrant yellow leaves clung to maple trees, their swan song a beautiful visual display before the bleak approach of dormant winter and its austere clime.
Weather like this recalled fond childhood experiences such as raking and then jumping into piles of crunchy leaves or carving a pumpkin for Halloween. The mild weather inspired gentler treatment of one another among his charges who shuffled their feet through the brown leaves to produce distinctive fall sounds.
Joe Gold was a crossing guard, wearing a black uniform accented in reflective yellow reflective tape. He escorted the kids to the entrance of a grandfathered building in Springdale, Pennsylvania, where about half of the student population walked the steep ascent to seek their education. There were separate areas for bus and parental drop offs, policed by the school administration, so Joe’s concentration was on providing safe passage for the middle school students entering the dirty brick Colfax Middle School and guiding the Junior and Senior High School students safely along their way up the hill to the newly renovated Springdale High School at the apex of the street.
Joe witnessed the planning and planting of a butterfly garden along the chain link fence on the school grounds by last year’s students. Runners of morning glories were dying off in the cooler weather and shorter days, and weeds invaded over the summer when no one tended the space. Across the street, a one-time corner store was being demolished, roped off with florescent yellow “caution” tape.
There was one physically handicapped girl who attended Colfax Upper Elementary School, and she needed to use a separate entrance to access the building. Due to the age of the structure, there was little handicapped accessibility, and the district was not obligated to update because of the historic architecture. Thus the child used a freight elevator to access the upper portions of the school, unable to use the many sets of stairs. Her mother kissed the brown eyed girl goodbye from the front seat of their white sedan, and an aid met the child at the ramp that led to the garbage collection area.
The bussed students accessed the school by the front door, while parentally driven students’ required drop off area was the back of the school. These student then had to walk along the sidewalk to the side of the building facing the main road and climb a set of cement stairs to enter. In previous years, the parentally dropped off kids could climb a wooden staircase to the back gym entrance, but the structure was deemed unsafe and removed. Every day, Joe saw two curly toe-heads run to their classes, dropped off late by their tired-looking mother. The mom would watch to see that they safely entered the building, then smile and wave to Joe. They never missed school, were never actually late, just always the last to arrive and thereby Joe’s cue heralding the end of his shift.
Protective by nature, Joe imagined himself a shepherd guiding a herd of precious sheep. He took his job seriously, hyper aware of the dangers that speeders presented. Today’s youth were in peril, too, from child predators, and Joe studied the faces of the passersby, so that he would be able to identify who belonged and who was out of place. He hoped to thereby identify potential “wolves” who might threaten his flock.
The beginning of the school year was a time of trepidation for the children, wondering if their fashion sense would align with their peers, worrying over whether their teachers would be strict or kind. Peer acceptance meant more at this age than family approval, certainly, so the pressure to conform was great.
So, Joe kept an eye out for bullies. With boys, it was usually pretty obvious. They were generally direct in their bullying approach, going for obvious physical altercations. The girls, though, were more subtle, smiling while delivering self-esteem-poisoning proclamations that devastated their classmates. Joe was the oldest boy in a family of six, so he knew what to look for, and when he recognized bullying, he intervened as best he could.
Mostly, though, Joe protected the kids from themselves. Many of the kids were too self-absorbed to safely cross the residential streets. Some read or sent text messages on their smart phones as they robotically approached the school. Groups of kids would hop about, loudly vying for attention from their band, ignoring cars or crosswalks. Others were exhausted by the early hour, nearly sleep walking.
The weather would soon make their passage more perilous, with slush and freezing rain, snow and ice treacherously waiting on sidewalks and stairways. The janitors would do their best to keep the ways cleared, with their arsenal of shovels, brooms, and rock salt, and Joe would advise the students of the safest routes.
On days when the weather was not temperate, Joe would wonder in misery why he left retirement to take this pitiless, thank less job. The pay was not great. There were no health benefits. When the weather was merciless, he would long for the comforts of his little, warm house, a hot cup of coffee, and his smiling wife. Still, he felt that he was adding something useful to his community by thus serving, and besides, there were always days like this to look forward to.