Life. Death. Pretending You’re A Crosswalk Guard.

Life. Death. Pretending You’re A Crosswalk Guard. February 11, 2008

I have always been extremely aware of life as being mostly death that hasn’t happened yet. I have no idea why I’m like that. I suspect, though, that it has to do with the fact that you can’t be more than about six years old before understanding that the only thing ever standing between between life and death is time. And time never, ever stops coming. So there you have it. It doesn’t matter who wins at Monopoly. It doesn’t matter who’s “It” in a game of tag. Hide ‘n Go Seek? Sure, it’s fun. I love that game! Find me! Don’t find me! I’ll be The Seeker, and give you all the time in the world to hide! Sooner or later, we all get found anyway.

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Johnny right over.

Pffft. Like I’d expect anything else.

Anyway, I was a fun kid. It probably doesn’t seem like I would be, but I was, because I was always acutely, keenly, sharply aware of life as a temporary state. I knew that being a kid was like a dreamI was having. And you know how in dreams the colors are always super-vibrant, and everything sort of shimmers with otherwordly, luminous potentiality? You know? When you’re dreaming, you know the trees around you could start talking, or you could start flying, or money could start raining from the sky. Anything can happen — and at any moment, all the rules could change. That’s how I experienced my life as a kid. Everything was open-ended. Everything was fabulous. Everything was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Everything was just waiting for me and my friends to make of it whatever we most wanted it to be.

I used to think furniture danced around when no one was in the room. With Maximum Nonchalance I used to casually stroll out of a room — and then pop my head back in again, to see if I could catch the couch dancing with the chair, the coffee table boogalooing with the lamp. I never did see that. I noticed a couple of times that the coffee table wasn’t exactly where it was when I left the room, or that the lamp had zipped back to a place a little closer to the edge of the end table than it had been, but that was all. Nothing I could use for proof. And that was fine. It could be our little secret.

One thing about being . . . well, me, when I was a kid, was that because I had this basic conviction that at any time things could be a lot different than they were, I tended to do things that made them different than they were. Of course the problem with that is that there are always adults around who are definitely vested in things staying exactly as they are.

I enjoyed changing things; teachers, for instance, enjoyed keeping things the same.

To me, not being willing to reassess the way something is meant denying its potential. Which was the same as killing it.

I always liked my teachers. But very often, I didn’t see as I had a choice. I understood that in the realest possible terms, it was either them or me. I knew I only had so much time. And I definitely knew that fun was just about the best thing anyone could ever have in this life. Hence my understanding that it was critical — and fair, and right — for me to get as much fun as possible.

And that is why, for instance, one day at school I thought I’d see what would happen if I snuck into the room where the crosswalk guards stored their orange vests and white hats and big “Stop” signs, put all that stuff on, went down to the area of our school where just then all the kindergarten kids were having recess, clapped my hands, told all the kids to line up in two rows, and then walked them off the school grounds. I was in sixth grade. I figured that to the kindergartners, I’d look like an adult. Or enough of one, anyway.

The kids and I were off the school grounds — we’d crossed the asphalt basketball courts and four-square boxes, passed the swing set/jungle gym area set in the grass, traversed the entire grass playing field, walked all the way down the straight, long path running between the school and the nearest street — before I realized that I had no plan beyond that. Still holding my “Stop” sign across my bright orange vest, I looked down at the forty or so kids who’d so obediently followed me from school. They were definitely looking to me to tell them what’s next.

Life. Sometimes it’s just so hard to tell who’s in charge, isn’t it?

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  • Well.

    That's… deep.

    And the image of a 6th grader with a goggle of children in tow is just hilarious.

    Still: it may have taught them not to mindlessly follow every guy who shouts an order.

    Or not.

  • Actually, I didn't shout. My attitude was very, "Hi, kids. I'm the friendly, competent crosswalk guard, here to take you home. Now everyone line up in two lines right in front of me here. Hold hands with the person across from you. Come on now. Let's be trusting and efficient." Then I just said, "C'mon," waved them forward, turned, and started walking. I couldn't believe they followed me. I REALLY couldn't believe no one stopped me. Us. Ever.

  • That is amazing and very frightening to me. I can see my son being in that group of sweet little lemmings. My daughter on the other hand probably would have told you that there was no way she was going with you. She always has something better to do than what anyone else has for her to do.

    "Life. Sometimes it’s just so hard to tell who’s in charge, isn’t it?"

    It's not usually hard for me to know who is in control. I know that God has a handle on my life and when things seem to be getting messy it's because I am trying to help Him out and do things for myself! If I just get out of the way and do the next right thing then things turn out a whole lot better for me!

  • John: how did this episode end?

    I mean, did you just turn around and admitted that you had, in fact, no idea what you were doing there? Did you keep on wandering around, losing kids at every playground, until the whole thing petered out? Or did you order your little group to cough up their lunch money and then lead them back to kindergarten, you sneaky, er, sixth grader?

  • There was a school for (what we then called) mentally retarded kids a half a block from where we came out on the street. I knew that school very well; I lived right across the street from it. The school had a little enclosed playground into which I let "my" kids. I knew the students and their teachers of the school we were now at would be coming out for their recess quite soon. So I made sure all the kids I had brought in were … situated in the new place, and then, about two minutes before I knew the mentally retarded kids and their staff would come out, I went home. From my kitchen window I watched while the the two groups mingled. I could see how confused the teachers from the mentally retarded school were. That's about all I remember. I think I just … knew everything was okay then, and went to watch cartoons, or something. But you know what happened, is that from then on our school hired these playground supervisors to kind of stand around during recess and … watch. They had whistles.

  • John, that's what happens in our daily life if we are not careful. One morning we wake up with a whistle and follow some guy who looks in charge without knowing that he hasn't a clue where we are going or why. I feel that way every time I step into the office, and I swear the powers that be come out of there respective holes and look around with udder confusion at the strange mix or "normal" kiddies in with the erm "challenged" ones. But, hey who's complaining… even if the leaders have no clue what's next the walk usually gives me something to laugh about. It makes me happy that I know who the boss really is.

  • Sabina

    Oh my goodness John! my 17 year old daughter did something similiar when she was in second grade-she convinced a bunch of her friends to leave the playground to go to the store. She did this 3 times before the school told me. The thing is that the school would have been liable should anything have happened to those kids, because they were supposed to be supervised by an adult and apparently were not. I'm just grateful nothing happened.

  • Grace

    I loved this story. It was fresh and funny. It was the inspiration for the start of a good day. Have you ever read I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris?

  • Dan Harrell


    Great story! Today you’d be tossed in jail or at least have to write on the blackboard 1000 times. “I will not lead five year olds astray”.

    Recently I went to my old grade school in Pontiac Michigan to see if I could walk through it after fifty some years. Most of the rooms and the play ground was the same, but it was sad for me. I wondered what happened to all the kids I knew there. The building, probably eighty years old at least is starting to show its age, and there isn’t much money for maintenance or repair.

    Is life really more about goodbye than hello?


  • Dan: It does so often feel just that way, doesn't it? Thanks for that beautifully melancholy thought.

    Grace: Bless your heart for this kind word. I haven't read "I Kissed Dating Goodbye. But I'll check it out.

  • Ann


    The furniture DOES dance when you're out of the room. Just thought I'd tell you that. No, I haven't any hard proof of this, but I've chosen to believe it and so it may as well be true. I NEVER leave a glass of milk behind me when I leave my office, for example. So far the desk has been mighty careful, but if it spills, my computer could be damaged.

    Everything is possible.

  • Too funny. I love it. Thanks.

  • Deborah Kirby

    I laughed out loud with this story (and the others that I have recently read since I was just introduced to your blog)! I used to have these small stuffed story book characters that were from Germany that my dad attached to a big board so they wouldn't get damaged. I used to stare and stare at each of these characters and was convinced that they moved as well. And after reading the Raggedy Andy stories where the stuffed animals all walked and talked this just further convinced me that there was movement when I wasn't looking!

    And so your story reminded me of why childhood was so magical and wonderful! And probably why I ended up as a professional actress and director so I could keep on imagining.

    Thank you for your humorous take on life! It is full of things to giggle at if you look hard enough!

  • John,

    Of course your narrative brings to mind two images. The first image is that of my Dad telling me at my grandfather's funeral that I'd reached the dying time – the age (35) when all those I looked up to begin dying off. He was right. He died a few years later.

    The second image is that of my children looking up to me. Will they be ready when I'm not there to lead them? How many times did I lead them on a fun adventure such as yours? At least, I'm hoping the children you led thought it was fun. Just think, they met children they might not normally meet since "mainstreaming" probably wasn't in vogue back then.

    Do you think the kids you led thought it fun? Or were they upset they'd been duped?


  • Sam: No, the kids weren't upset at all. They seemed really happy. Something DIFFERENT was happening. Plus, they were going for fun walk. They seemed totally content the whole time. Plus, a new playground! (Actually, it just occurred to me: I don't think they were kindergarteners. They were first-graders. Our school didn't have a kindergarten then. And that makes sense, because it WAS a bit of a walk, actually. And the whole time the kids were totally into it. So it makes sense they'd have been a little older.)

  • And this is why I homeschooled my kids 😉

  • It may be cliche in our culture, but it's still true: making the most of every moment is the best way, the intended way, to live. My wife and I have regular conversations about the idea that if we aren't finishing every day, having spent every ounce of energy on milking it for all it's worth, in spite of many of the humdrum daily tasks, then we've wasted part of the day. Add up too many wasted parts, and you end up up with wasted years. The process of slowly approaching death is too precious to waste.

  • John,

    Well then, no harm done.

    Since I think you're just now 50 according to the "Midlife Manual for Men" book you co-authored, you sort of fit into the counter-culture zeitgiest of the time – 1968 or 1969. You defied authority, hurt no one and had fun doing it.

    However, if my son did something like that… I'd probably snicker behind his back before disciplining him. I can't believe you got away with it. But then again, at that time the law of the playground held more sway. Kids rarely ratted out someone if the transgression was against teachers or other authority.


  • The kids had no sense whatsoever that anything was wrong. I LOOKED like an authority figure to them: I had the hat, the vest, the sign, the tone and attitude. I just said, "C'mon kids, line up, we're going to take a walk now," and they did. Teachers and other Authority Figures are ALWAYS telling kids to line up and walk somewhere. It amazed me how FAST they lined up: they were so instantly neat and orderly. THAT'S actually what freaked me out; I was, like, "Dang, are they running a military camp out here?"

    Anyway, it was … fun, or whatever. I did a LOT of stuff like that when I was a kid. To me, reality always seemed like this kind of … malleable medium. I knew I couldn't CHANGE its natural characteristics. But, like Play-Doh, I knew I could stretch the You Know What out of it. So I did.

  • Another great post. Thank you for sharing. It shows how we need to be teaching our children – and your having the children follow you was harmless. But today, our children follow much worse things – and it can be much worse. It's how our son died from the "choking game."

    BTW, the Josh Harris book mentioned IS indeed a good book. Another one I recently did a review on on my blog in that respect is "Emotional Purity." Good reads.

  • I like the spirit with which you express. I like your perspective on Death. Your story reminds me of the movie "Catch me if you can", where Leonardo DeCaprio plays the part of an impersonator and fools almost everyone. Based on a true story, and well worth watching. It begs the question though, how do we know what is authentic in life, if people so easily follow that which appears convincing? And does it matter? What if Jesus was just dressing up, and played a pretty convincing "I'm the messiah role"?

  • When some science teacher or book let me in on the well-kept secret of molecules dancing all around us and us just not equipped to see them, I felt, sort of vindicated for believing stuff like the furniture and dolls and all that moving around behind our backs.

    I loved the sequel where you let the kids off in a different sort of playground. You know, you weren’t a half bad leader for a 6th-grader. You didn’t abandon your responsibilities. You led well. Bravo!

  • Richard Lubbers

    John. What an interesting story! You must have been a gas to hang out with as a kid, and to hang out with now.

    I was raised as a "dutiful" child, and never bent the rules. I think that is why, as an adult, I find that I ask questions and question answers. Sometimes I feel like the five-year-old child constantly asking "Why?" It took me 30 years as a Christian to understand that we can always expect more that what we see. It sounds like you grew up with that as a possibility at all times, and threrfore must have found it easy to believe that God would "wow" you from time-to-time.

    Thank you for a story that made me smile and shake my head at the same time.

    Keep shaving. Or not.

  • Wow I wish I'd seen that… Good story, well told.

  • R

    All things work together for the good….Though let's not lose people children (much) that grace should abound(lol). Praise God that disasters are all accomodated for and the faithful straight and narrow will be there to return to when sanity returns(lol).