Better Citizens

Volunteering at an elementary school provides an interesting platform from which to watch people on a daily basis. This kind of voyeurism can be entertaining, but it can also be eye opening. A simple duty like assisting the traffic flow of parents dropping off their children in the morning at the school’s traffic circle show people at their best, and their worst.

Every Thursday morning during this school year I’ve had the privilege of standing in the center of a traffic oval, with two lanes of traffic passing around. While one aspect of the job is to be the crossing guard, stopping traffic to allow the few kids who live locally to cross these two lanes of traffic safely, the job ends up becoming more traffic cop: one without a badge or any real authority.

What’s wonderful about this position is that you get to see practically every family who is a part of the school’s community, connecting with people through a smile, a wave, a brief conversation. The great majority of parents drive through the circle, follow my direction for where to stop to drop off their child or children, and merge in an orderly fashion into the single lane of traffic that leads away from school.

Something I’ve witnessed that buoys my spirits, is the attitude of a few of the families who walk their children to school every day. I’ve heard through various sources that contrary to the outside attitudes of these few families, their financial worlds are totally upside down: the worts case scenario kind of upside down that we read about in the news all too often today.

Talk to these folks – look at the smiles on their faces – and you would never know. Their spirits always seem high. Their children are always in good spirits. Their homes are well cared for. There is obvious pride and hope involved in everything they do: at least it appears that way.

I marvel at these families because they are facing financial adversity with the kind of class and dignity I could only dream to do. I think of the anxiety that I struggle to not foist upon others when I have those days when I’m far too overextended. But then on those Thursday mornings during traffic, while the clock inches closer and closer to the moment the starting bell rings for school, I am reminded that I am doing OK managing my own anxieties, that I’m more like the vast majority of the families making it through each day, but still working to be at least cordial to my fellow citizens.

A small yet significant minority of these parents have, unfortunately, become less and less courteous in both their patience in waiting in the lines of traffic that build up ten minutes before the school’s starting bell rings, and in following directions for where to move their cars to drop off their children. Maybe they too are going through terrible situations at home, but as witnessed at least a few families, this does not give anyone the right to take their frustrations out on others.

But Thursday after Thursday the same parents come through the traffic circle, late, harried, self-centered. In school communications, verbally, through hand gestures, we ask people to drive as far forward along the sidewalk’s curb as possible in order to slide as many cars behind them as possible, allowing other parents to drop off their children. These same parents always stop as soon as they reach the closest spot on the curb to drop off their children, leaving spots for at least three cars open in front of them.

Week after week, the same parents cut in and cut off other parents in order to drop off their children first, even before reaching me for any direction. Week after week the same parents drop their children off on the street outside of the traffic circle so that the children then need to cross the now busy street, filled with other late and frustrated parents. Week after week the same parents are late and frustrated and pulling into the traffic circle only moments before the bell rings, which invariably means that by the time they’ve reached a safe place to drop off their child – a place that also allows them to courteously make room for other parents to drop off their children – the bell has already rung, and their child is late.

I write this and I think, “This sounds terribly petty, more like I’m complaining that people are not listening to me.” Here’s where the rest of my observations fall into place.

The vast majority of people are usually on time. They may have a late day here or there, and get caught in the fracas just before the bell rings, but for the most part everybody tries to get to school ahead of the last second crush of cars comprised of the group of families who are always late.

Just as the children of the few families I mentioned in beginning were good kids with great attitudes about most everything, most of the kids of the parents who are perennially late are those kids we all know: disaffected even in elementary school, and self-centered.

Hmmm. Where do you think the kids are learning it?

And yet we continually think that the way to get through to these kids is to throw more money into our school systems, and try to find some way to breakthrough with them, to get them to see what it means to be a good citizen.

My immediate reaction is that the time has come for us as a society to pressure parents into being more responsible citizens themselves. Thinking about it for just a moment more I realize that what we really need is a way to connect with each other more, personally, intimately, as parents all struggling to make it through this journey, in a way that allows parents to feel safe, and have emotional safety nets.

Technology has created means for us to make friends with people half way across the globe, but it has done little to help us connect with our neighbors. Many would argue the distraction of technology – mobile phones, video games, Internet – are part of the reason we are not as close with our neighbors as in generations past. The pressures of everyday life, work, getting kids to extracurricular activities, and everything else that bombards our senses every day is enough to have many parents focused solely on dropping their child off at school, forgetting that there are others around them trying to do the same thing.

I get it. I understand, but it’s no excuse. It’s time for all of us to work together, to insure that we find ways to help each other through this financial crisis, and to make sure we raise the next generation of children to be more courteous – better citizens – than the previous.


RJ Lavallee is the author of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion): a guide to the benefits and dangers of today’s communication tools on sale at, Barnes and Noble, and

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