By Nick Sotolongo
Commons Photo by Nick Sotolongo
From most perspectives, the job of a crossing guard appears a middle-of-the-road existence. However, observing the after-school scene at McDougle Elementary School it is evident that there is something extraordinary in the air, and the man standing in the middle of the road is responsible.
As the children streamline homeward out of the school and cross Hillsborough Street, each child exchanges a smile and a high five with this man. Perhaps you have witnessed the scene yourself driving by in the past dozen years. But beyond the novelty of the sight, the cute children and the friendly man, lies the true small town spirit of Carrboro.
Meet James Burnett, a Carrboro resident for more than fifty years and the local crossing guard since 1994. A native of Chatham County, Burnett is wise and well-schooled in the lessons of life, particularly the one about looking both ways before crossing the street. Like all public safety officers working in close proximity with schools, Burnett’s first concern is always the well-being of the children. As cars whiz by the back entrance of McDougle, he speaks of the speeding problem on Hillsborough Road. “I put my life on the line for these kids. I can’t even count the number of speeders I have to flag down. People can be in a real hurry,” Burnett says.
Nevertheless, traffic and safety concerns are in any crossing guard’s job description. What Burnett is most famous for, slapping hands with the kids, is remarkable. He manages to make a personal connection with every single parent and child who passes him by. Indeed even the adults get the high five treatment, and as parents, are especially appreciative of Burnett’s outgoing nature. When Caron Thornburg walks by to pick up her son, Burnett touches hands with her and warmly says, “That’s my shining star.”
Thornburg herself values Burnett’s ability to make anybody smile, a quality she deems as magical. “He has this incredible talent to read people. For instance, he’ll put his hand way high in the air for the tough kids to make them reach for their five. He even makes the ones in the strollers happy.” Like many children growing up today, Burnett took the bus to school and wished he lived in a neighborhood similar to Hillsborough Road where walking is possible. Now Burnett is able to ensure the safety of members of his community who enjoy taking part in what has become an outdated tradition. McDougle fourth graders Jerry Pcolar and Tommy Billman both live within a half-mile of the school and enjoy traveling to school on foot, even though Tommy prefers to bike. To them, Burnett is an integral part of their daily journey. Jerry said Burnett “smiles way more than my teacher,” and appreciates the safety the crossing guard provides him.
As the kids walk home past the maple-lined front yards of the street, the sense of community is as clear as the bright January afternoon. In the contemporary city, the majority of the children ride the bus across vast urban sprawl to and from school. Accordingly, the crossing guard is replaced with a stop sign attached to a mechanical arm that extends itself away from the bus and into the street. On Hillsborough Road, this mechanical arm remains human and reaches to touch each of the kids as well as halt the traffic. If you find yourself driving by, brake and roll down your window. Then extend your arm and give the man a high five.