Flossie Pearl Howard's days are filled with little crises: a child who stands in the street crying because he doesn't want to go to school, students fighting in the schoolyard and youngsters who forget their lunch money and turn to her for help.
For nearly two decades, Howard, a public school crossing guard, has stood her post most school days at the busy corner of Seventh and K streets NE near J.O. Wilson Elementary School. Students call her "Miss Pearl," and turn to her for security, for last-minute help and for friendship.
"The kids that I cross today are often children of children I've known years ago. I'm even close to some of the grandparents," Howard said. "Because of this I'm like a friend to most of the children. However, I will discipline them if they do something I know their parents wouldn't like."
In her own way, she has become a pillar of a close-knit Northeast Washington community that depends on Howard and other crossing guards for their largely unheralded service of protecting the city's young.
Howard has become dependent on her crossing guard's position and her community as well. The childless widow can see the elementary school, a constant reminder of her duties, from the living room window of her neat one-bedroom apartment.
The school and the job order the weekdays' activities: the little time between the morning, noon and afternoon shifts is filled snatching moments to watch her favorite soap opera, "The Guiding Light," or sometimes doing household chores.
Until a few years ago, she worked nights as a cafeteria counter clerk to supplement her income. Now she cares for an elderly woman on weekends. Howard never thought her crossing guard job would become a way of life, however.
Howard moved to Washington from Smithfield, N.C., in 1955 after her early marriage to a high school sweetheart ended in separation. For a while she lived with a sister, working as a waitress and sometimes as a cashier in a local restaurant. Howard said she later applied to be a D.C. policewoman, but was told she wasn't qualified. Instead, they asked, would she be interested in a school crossing guard's job?
"From the very beginning, I fell in love with the children," said Howard, a soft-spoken woman of understated elegance, tall and statuesque with deep, expressive eyes.
"But I did apply for other jobs because I wanted more financial security," she said. "Every year I'd say I was going to give the job up. I came close to accepting a position as a nurse's aide, then I found myself right back on the crossing corner. I guess this is what I was meant to be."
Howard remembers the days when she had to walk boldly into traffic, a few times at her own risk, to insure a youngster's safety. Others remember the cold, hot, snowy or rainy days she stood her post until the last child made it safely across the street. Through the years they have honored her contribution with commendation plaques from the school, the PTA and her employer, the D.C. Police Department.
"People like Pearl Howard make the streets safer for the children of the District of Columbia," a recent police newsletter stated.
"I knew Pearl before the traffic light was installed," said Margaret Cary, the mother and grandmother of several Wilson elementary students. "Her job was more dangerous than it is now, but she was always pleasant and kept things under control."
Alice Thornton, a fourth-grade teacher and friend of Howard's, says the school guard's commitment to her job often goes beyond the call of duty.
"Pearl arrives early and leaves late and rarely misses a day's work unless she's in North Carolina visiting her mother, who is ill," Thornton said. "She enjoys her work and her face lights up when she sees the children."
Howard says: "I've always loved children and when I first got married I wanted to have some. But it never happened. So I just stopped worrying about it. I often wonder if the fact that I don't have children of my own is the reason I've stayed with my job as long as I have."
Still, she says, she is content and satified with who she is and what she has, despite the changes of time and student attitudes.
"Children were much more respectful when I first started, and they listened to me," she said. "Today, it's nothing to hear a student curse a school guard or see a policeman bring a child to school. Can you imagine, third- and fourth-graders skipping school! That didn't happen 10 years ago."