Lillian Shade can stop a Mack truck with a single hand. She'll walk in front of an oncoming car and double dare the driver to keep rolling. If you try it, she'll kick your fender. But most people don't. Most people respect Shade. Most people, that is, except those in the city whose children she protects.
Shade, 49, is a D.C. school crossing guard, one of 200 people who brave the elements morning, noon and midafternoon to make sure the city's children cross streets safely. But she is part of the only group of city employes who are not taken seriously enough to get a pay raise during the most recent contract negotiations.
Although American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' Council 20 that represents the city's crossing guards has filed an unfair labor practices suit against the city, you won't find Shade standing on the corner pouting. Sure, she could use the extra $250 that is normally awarded to a person named "Most Outstanding Crossing Guard," as she was for 1985, but she simply goes about her job.
Every day, about 50 children cross the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 11th Street NW, where Shade has worked for the past eight years. Most of them are heading for nearby Thompson Elementary School while about 11,000 commuters are trying to make their way downtown.
It is a battle that many a kid would lose were it not for people like Shade.
Crossing a busy six-lane street is not an easy task for a child who is only as tall as a car's bumper and Shade has seen their fright firsthand.
"Some parents send children out here as young as 4 and 5 years old," Shade says. "You should see them, holding each others' hands so tightly, some of them trembling, when they come up to the curb." But Shade quickly reassures them, gently holding them by the shoulders, then bolting into the intersection with an orange glove raised, blowing her whistle. "All right children," she commands. "Just stay between the white lines." As the children move into the street they imitate Shade by holding up their tiny hands, sometimes waving at drivers.
Some mornings are worse than others such as those days when there seem to be an endless convoy of truck drivers in a hurry to make their deliveries, willing to risk running a yellow light. Shade is not daunted by the size of the vehicles that she regulates through the intersection. "I feel like these children are my children," Shade says. "I'd rather lose my life than lose one of theirs."
Her resolve is evident as an 18-wheel mail truck approached the intersection on a recent morning and tried to make a go for it through a yellow light. As children leaned over the curb about to step into the crossing lane Shade saw the truck coming and quickly knocked them back. She then moved herself into the intersection. The truck driver, in the middle of shifting gears, honked his horn but Shade stood fast. Suddenly the truck began to hump and bump like a mechanical caterpillar, then came to a jerking halt within a few feet of Shade. Having stared the driver down with a whistle and an orange glove, she beckoned to the children, then shooed them across the street safely.
"Every now and again there'll be someone in too much of a hurry but it's my job to put the children before anybody's deadline," she says.
More often than not, however, the motorists seem to appreciate her efforts. Some of them wave at her as they pass, while others carry on conversations while waiting for the light to change. Her greatest satisfaction comes from children who wave back once they are safely across the street.
More attention should be paid to the city's school crossing guards. It's one thing to get an obscene finger from an irate motorist, but it's much worse when the gesture is from an unappreciative city.