Crowd Control

Time was when I traveled upwards of 100,000 miles each year for work. I spent a lot of time in airports, getting on planes, getting off of planes, waiting for planes. This spanned both before and after the many changes that 9/11 wrought on the experience of air travel in the United States. Security is now more important than ever.

But, really, it’s crowd control that continues to rule the day around the tarmac and the terminal. When I board the plane, what line I choose to check in, how many bags I carry, and more, all designed to most efficiently get me and my fellow travelers where we are going without too many hiccoughs. It’s meant to make things flow.

At the airport, we do what we’re told and, when things are busy and there are delays, we wait. We rely on the people in corporate uniforms — usually blue blazers and silver nameplates — to guide us, tell us where to stand, and when our plane might take off. When there’s a bottleneck at the security screening station, or at the podium taking tickets, we do not step out of line and pitch in. That’s their job, to control us. Our job is to get through it all and get where we’re going.

My children’s elementary school, with seven hundred students and just a handful of people over four feet tall in the building, must do a bit of crowd control, too. Walking the halls as a parent volunteer, and later hearing stories at the dinner table, this is all clear. So much of what I see and hear of are about things running smoothly rather than some fancy idea like “learning.”

In the lunchroom, where the kids have thirty minutes to eat, each in their various shifts, there is a large traffic signal helpfully broadcasting what one may do with one’s food: Green — eat; Yellow — pack up; Red — get out and make room for the next grade. When kids get unruly, teachers have a special clapping signal, long-long-short-short-short, that elicits an immediate Pavlovian response. The children repeat the clap back, and fall silent. It’s remarkable to watch five simple claps silence a loud, disorderly room, just as my sharp “sit!” will stop my dogs from bounding across the room to bowl over a visitor to my house.

At our local elementary school, the adults seem to have things well in hand, at least as it relates to keeping a placid atmosphere.

But, there is a strange in-between time. That’s in the morning, before the doors officially open at 8:30. My daughter has an early safety patrol duty (one of whose prime directives, to be memorized before receiving the patrol badge, is “The three main functions of the patrol are to instruct, direct, and control”), so I stand waiting with my son for the doors to open, along with the other kids who arrive early. There are rules to this time. The children must stand in two lines, on one of two seams in the cement sidewalk. They are to stand quietly, not push and shove, not run, and they are to keep the space immediately in front of the doors clear. The kids who arrive early every day usually stick to those rules. At 8:30, the bell rings, and a school administrator or teacher (they rotate) opens the doors and welcomes the children.

But, sometimes the buses arrive early. Kids pile off, and the sidewalk fills. Pushing, running, shoving, and other sorts of unruliness ensue. Not yet fully inside the school, the kids are not yet fully under the control of the tall people who run the place, so they play. This can go on for four or five minutes before the bell rings and the school opens its arms to them.

Sometimes other parents are present; usually I am the only adult standing outside. Yet, I have no school-vested authority. When kids are shoving or running, I ask them to stop and sometimes they do, but the way they look at me as they saunter off makes it clear that just being an adult is not enough, in their eyes, to really give me standing to tell them what to do. That would take a title from the front office.

Eventually, the doors will be opened, the kids will file in, go to their classrooms, and order will be restored. But, once, the doors were late in opening and the bell had rung. The official in charge of greeting on that day was delayed. We waited. One minute. Two. Three. Two more buses pulled up to discharge passengers. Each minute ticking by felt like ten as the volume mounted. Inside, I could see through the glass, the day was beginning like always and teachers were walking to and fro from faculty lounge to classroom. Only — no students. It was clear to me, having seen it many times, that opening the doors would quiet the kids down and allow the day to begin — it was exactly what was needed.

I marvel now at the courage it seemed to take for me to walk over to the doors, pull the handles, turn to face the throng, and file them into the building. The administrator in charge that day, just arriving at the lobby, thanked me. She seemed sincere. But there was a catch to her voice. I was out of my sanctioned character, and had stepped on the school’s turf. It’s one thing to volunteer in art class cutting out paper masks, wearing a “VISITOR” badge. It’s quite another to take over someone else’s job duties.

I have only done that once or twice since. And, those times, I asked first. The answer in each case had that strange catch to it. Each time, even though I knew I was doing the proper thing, the asking was hard. I felt I was stepping into a role where I was unwelcome, outside of the normal structures of control.

These structures keep the environment at our elementary school calm enough for learning to take place. I do not resent them, just as I do not resent the fact that, at the airport, we must line up to board our plane.

But, sometimes I wonder, why is it so hard for me to help my school out? These are our kids; it’s our school, not some government fortress like a jail or motor vehicle office. And yet, stepping forward to shoulder some obvious, tiny responsibility, like helping my school out by keeping the morning kids from overrunning the doors, I feel the same way I might if I were to stand next to the airport gatekeeper and frisk the passengers myself. Maybe, at the airport, that would get us through security faster but it is an unwelcome intrusion into the institution. Well, OK, that’s not MY airport.

But it’s my school, and my neighbors. What will it take for me to be comfortable stepping forward to fulfill the responsibility I have to it? And, what will it take for my school to feel comfortable with folks like me opening their doors for them?

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