Steve Peterson was standing on the corner of Bower Hill and Cochran roads in Mt. Lebanon when a woman pulled up in her car with a cell phone to her ear, a crossword puzzle on the visor and a bowl of what appeared to be SpaghettiOs in her lap.
Mr. Peterson points to that as one of many strange moments in his 13-year career as a crossing guard in the Mt. Lebanon School District.
But it is the students and their behavior that stand out in his mind.
“The little ones have projects and there are occasions where they’ll make a card for the guards,” he said. “That makes you really feel good when a little guy or girl comes up to you and says ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘thank you’ and hands you a homemade card.”
The 64-year-old is one of about 40 regular crossing guards and 15 substitute guards employed by the Mt. Lebanon Police Department to protect students as they walk to and from school. Since 1955, the department has hired guards who put other people’s safety ahead of their own, noted a supervisor.
“They put their life on the line every day that they put their foot on the road,” said school guard supervisor Sharon Kroner. “And they do it willingly and very professionally.”
Across the Pittsburgh region, crossing guards come from professions all over the board to spend their post-retirement years directing traffic and watching over schoolchildren. The job requires constant vigilance, they say, but the kids make the job well worth the challenge.
“If a child were to get hurt on my post, even though I did my job right, I don’t know if I could live with that,” said Mt. Lebanon crossing guard Tony Randazzo. “That’s how much I care about them.”
Before guards can take up posts in the community, the appropriate police departments conduct background checks to ensure that they don’t have criminal histories. Police departments make the official hires in most towns.
Municipalities and school districts often share responsibility for paying guards’ salaries. Guards in Mt. Lebanon earn $5.25 per day that they go to their posts, plus about $13.50 per hour.
The job helps to pay bills for some, but for most, working as a crossing guard takes on additional significance. In his 20-year tenure as a guard, Mr. Randazzo, 76, has been posted outside all of his district’s schools. At each one, he tries to be “a father and a grandfather” to students, talking and laughing with them and encouraging them on difficult days.
Years later, he still remembers their names. Some still visit, and he anticipates the day when a former student stops by with his or her own children.
For many students, crossing guards are confidants. The students chatter as they walk by, often regaling guards with tales about their home lives.
“Sometimes the kids will tell you stories and you don’t dare repeat it,” said Carolyn Boone, a crossing guard in the Gateway School District. “I always tease with the parents. I say, ‘You don’t even want to know what they tell me.’ ”
In her 12 years on the job, Ms. Boone, 69, said she has gotten creative to hold students’ attention. One woman used to call Ms. Boone “the Pied Piper’’ because she sang with students to keep them from roughhousing. Christmas songs were often their tunes of choice, she noted, even in the heat of late summer.
Ms. Boone said her innovation paid off in loyalty.
“Two children had to write an article on somebody they really liked and thought of greatly, and they picked me,” she said. “That was such a good feeling for a child to say, ‘I want to do my report on you, Miss Carolyn.’ ”
Mr. Peterson’s wife, Linda, also works as a crossing guard in Mt. Lebanon. For the couple, serving as guards is a way to engage with their community.
”This gives us a tremendous sense of self-worth,” said Ms. Peterson, 62. “You get to learn the community and see all that it has to offer.’’
Braving storms and more
But the job isn’t always fun and games. Working as a guard has its challenges. High among them: inconsiderate drivers, drivers using cell phones and winter weather.
But even when drivers aren’t considerate, school crossing guards are required to be friendly and polite.
“That’s very difficult when you’re trying to stop [vehicles] at 35 miles an hour when they’re supposed to be going 15,” said Milton Deithorn, a crossing guard in Bethel Park. “I’ve had drivers come right up on the back of my legs.’’
Mr. Deithorn and other guards noted that cell phones cause drivers to pay less attention to students walking or at crosswalks. So the guards said they have taken on the extra responsibility of teaching students to be hyper vigilant, constantly looking in both directions as they walk.
In the winters, freezing temperatures make working outside a test of will, several guards said. So, when snow falls and temperatures plummet, crossing guards bundle up.
“I always tease the kids by saying ’If I roll over, you’re going to have to get a tow truck to get me back up because I’ve got too many clothes on,’ ” Ms. Boone said.
Spring has its own set of challenges. For example, April showers can quickly turn into a thunderstorm. And many guards noted that younger students often are afraid and cling to the crossing guards for reassurance.
“You reassure them and make sure they get home safe,’’ Ms. Boone said. “You’ve got to calm them down ... because they’ll want to hang onto your leg.’’
Parents often express gratitude to school crossing guards. Mr. Randazzo said at Chrstmas he often gets gift cards to a coffee shop down the street from his post.
“It’s their way of saying they’re happy you were there. They don’t have to do that; I’m being paid to do my job,” he said. “But they feel like they want to go a little further.”
Mr. Randazzo’s relationship with parents is give-and-take. He once helped a mother to retrieve her car keys from a storm drain using a rope that he had in his car. It wasn’t part of his job, he said, but “why not?”
Reporting potential crime isn’t in the guards’ job descriptions, either, but an “if you see something, say something” mentality occasionally compels them to call the police. Mr. Peterson once was at his post at lunchtime when he saw a man climb into a window of a nearby apartment building.
“I called 911 right away, and within a minute, there were marked Mt. Lebanon police cars,” he said. “To make a long story short, it was a contractor doing work in the building.”
Despite the ups and downs, Mr. Randazzo said working as a crossing guard is “a good job.”
“If you love children and you can give them a smile in the morning, you can’t beat it,” he said. “Children might be coming up to school, and they’re not in real good moods, and you greet them with ‘good morning’ and smile, and it might be the thing that helps them have a better mood for the rest of the day.”
Marisa Iati: firstname.lastname@example.org.