That time I got crosswise with the crossing guard

January 7, 2017 at 8:51 am | Posted in alaska, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I was awkward, socially inept and introverted to a fault when I was a kid.  I came by it honestly, somehow.  These was nothing wrong with my upbringing or my parents.  My siblings [I was the oldest] were not this way.  It was a great source of frustration to my mom, who sought out help to try to figure out what was wrong with me, and desperately longed to put me on the path to normalization.  This was in the ’60s, a bit before introversion began to be recognized as more of a normal variation, vs. an illness or defect.  She was always waiting for me to have a breakout moment and emerge from my shell.

One September day in 1971, I did stick up for myself and do something unexpected.

Three years before then, the same summer we moved to a new house [the only one I got to live in that our architect father designed], we began attending our neighborhood public school.  The one where we previously were enrolled was a private school, The Little School — it was located on the lower level of the University Unitarian Church [they just leased the space, it wasn’t affiliated and wasn’t a religious school].  The elementary kids were in the church and the middle school aged kids were in a different leased church building across a side street.

In 1968 The Little School finally got a campus of its own, a collection of small buildings on a beautiful site in Bellevue, on the east side of Lake Washington opposite Seattle.  I recall touring the new school and wishing so much I could go there.  There were little round classroom buildings and larger commons buildings arranged on a beautiful sloped site, densely wooded with huge old growth Douglas firs and little random stepping stone pathways between the various pods.  Our parents decided against committing to taking us that far away and picking us up every day, and enrolled us in public school.  I was heartbroken!

I managed to hold my own in public school, but recall it feeling like a prison camp compared to the nurturing environment I was used to.  When I saw the other kids smoking on the lower playfield behind the wood baseball backstop, or threatening other kids, or breaking windows — or thousands of other ways of acting badly — at first I didn’t even get it.  There was a sense it was good for me.   A few years later, faced with a choice of attending an alternative high school in Anchorage instead of a mainstream one, I stuck with the mainstream choice.

In the summer of 1971 when I was between 5th and 6th grade we spent the whole summer in Alaska.  My dad had been there off and on for a couple of years and was doing a lot better finding architectural work in Anchorage — bustling and expanding in the early days of Big Oil on the North Slope — than in Seattle, where a recession was deepening.  I’d been in Seattle my entire life and while I loved it [later I would realize how great it was for development of progressive ideals and an imaginative outlook on life], Alaska was an eye opener for me and a grand adventure.  My dad had a project that involved an inventory and condition survey of facilities in state parks, that required him to travel the road system of the state.  He took my mom, my siblings and I with him and we set out from our little Spenard apartment in our Mercury station wagon with a 20 ft. travel trailer — that we had wrangled up the 2,700 miles from Seattle right after school let out.

I hated Alaska for the first week or so [what kind of backwater had I been kidnapped to?] but the feeling soon gave way to admiration and awe.  The whole summer was a crazy camping trip, being dirty and sweaty, wearing the same clothes too many days in a row, not bathing much… and letting many other learned and practiced manners and behavior backslide a bit.

We would return to Seattle in the fall for my 6th grade year, then spend the following summer getting ready before moving to Anchorage for good in the fall — and all the plot twists to follow, for better or worse.

In America in general in the late ’60s, the formality and clean cut, Mad Men appearance and outlook of the early and mid-’60s was giving way to the hippie era.  It took a couple years longer to trickle down to elementary school, and not everybody was on the same schedule with it.  For me the transition got started that very summer.  I’d been back in Seattle for 10 days or so, and in school for the first week when I walked up the hill at the end of the school day.

The school’s single access point was a steep driveway that plunged into the lower plateau of the school site from an elevated, gently sloping road that was a neighborhood collector road despite being narrow and uneven.  [I looked at it on Google Maps and it looks the same today as it did that day more than 45 years ago.]  I always walked up the hill, on a sidewalk on the right hand side of the driveway, turned right at the top and walked along the collector road eight more blocks or so to my house.

There was a crossing guard stationed at the top of the hill where the school driveway T-boned into the collector street.  And a crosswalk — really just some wide painted stripes across the road.  The crossing guards wore uniforms of a sort, as I recall it was a hat, a vest with some kind of a diagonal strap across the chest?  Can’t exactly picture it but it was sort of ramshackle and sort of police-like at once.  And a wooden staff with a red flag on it.  It was their job to walk into the crosswalk and hold out the flag to halt traffic while the school kids crossed the road.  The kids might have to queue up and wait a couple minutes until a break in traffic, though usually the street was not busy.

I was a gangly, skinny kid who’d had a recent growth spurt.  I had acclimated to Alaska, cooler in the summer and I was under-dressed compared to the other kids — that day I was in blue jeans with ripped up knees and a short sleeved light pullover sweater, a little frayed, copper color with three white stripes across the chest — both items a little too small.  Sandals on my big feet and an unruly mess of sandy-brown hair.

The crossing guard was a 5th grader, a year younger than me [and inches shorter].  He still looked more like 1967 — white corduroys, large square tartan plaid buttoning shirt under a light tan cloth coat, oxford shoes and a flat top crew cut.  When I got to the top of the hill, there  were three younger kids waiting to cross.  There wasn’t an abundance of room there, so I carefully stepped around them, on a narrow patch of grass between the sidewalk and a blackberry vine topped steep bank, and started to pivot to turn right and head up and along the road toward home.

The crossing guard held up his flag and barked out, “STOP!”.  And I tilted my head a bit, gesturing with my skinny arm toward the top of the narrow sloping street.

“I’m not crossing, I am walking up this way on this side of the street.”

He didn’t reply but continued to hold up the flag.  I kind of waved it off and continued on my way.  I thought he’d merely made a mistake, thinking I was going to step into the crosswalk, until realizing that wasn’t what I was up to.  I walked the rest of the way home and didn’t think any more of it.

The next day I was at school [seem to recall the confrontation, if one could refer to it that way was on a Friday, so this would be the following Monday] my teacher asked me to step out into the hallway with her, then told me I had been called to the Principal’s Office, and escorted me there.  I found myself sitting in a chair in front of the Principal’s desk.  The crossing guard was already there, in a second chair four feet away.

We sat there in silence for what seemed like a half hour but was probably ten minutes.  This was the third year in this school I transferred into for 4th grade, and I had seen the Principal before but never close up.  Mr. Ernesto L. Balerezo was an intimidating presence to say the least.  Tall, dark skinned, handsome, barrel chested, with a mane of combed, oiled black hair.  Unquestionable authority and presence.  He looked like he was chiseled from a single hunk of the most dense granite ever discovered.

The crossing guard started to say something, and Balarezo looked up from the stack of papers he was going through, making marks with a pencil in the margins of some of the pages, lowered his reading glasses and put a thick index finger to his lips.  The kid immediately clammed up!  After taking a phone call and combing through a ten page report, he laid the glasses on the desk, looked at the crossing guard and said, “OK, what happened?”

“Well, there were cars coming and going in the road and I was waiting for a break in traffic so I could get some kids across the crosswalk.  I told him to stop, and he didn’t stop!”

Balarezo pivoted toward me and said, “And what do you think happened?”

I was as nervous as hell when first in the room but had started to calm down by then.  I said, “I didn’t think it was necessary for me to stop, since I was turning right and not crossing either the driveway or the road.  I have been doing this the same way every day, coming to the school and going home for two years and this is the first time somebody told me I had to stop.  So it just seemed like he made a mistake, and assumed I was going to cross the street, when I never intended to do so.”

Just then the crossing guard blurted out, a bit too loudly, “I am the crossing guard, and if I tell him to stop, he has to stop!”

He started to make another point, but Mr. B held up his hand and all further talk ceased again.  Then he went back to his paperwork.  Called his secretary a couple times with brief questions and to issue instructions.  After a few more minutes — as I sat there in awe and the crossing guard looked uncomfortable and embarrassed — Balarezo looked up from his work again.  Flashing a brief grin for the first time, he said, “OK, then.  I’m not going to have any more trouble from you two, and you will get along from now on, right?”

Nothing more was said about it by anybody.  The crossing guard was still at his post at the end of the day, and beginning then, and each day following I would walk up to the corner, pause and look at him and he would give me a signal indicating it was OK to turn and walk up the street.  We were in detente to avoid blowing each other up, just like the United States and the Soviet Union.  Two months later, the crossing guard was moved to a different street corner a couple blocks further down the street, the opposite way from my route home.  His replacement never even looked at me, let alone insist I get his permission to turn the corner.

I’m surprised I can recall this incident in such detail, when so much else from those years is forgotten.  I can’t recall if my mom ever spoke to me about it.  I wonder if she was secretly pleased I’d finally done something normal?

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