Safety Town offers kids a head start

While writing about the upcoming "Safety Town" in District 622, I was reminded of the hazards of my own walk to kindergarten, a long time ago in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Parents of will-be-kindergartners in North St. Paul, Maplewood, Oakdale and other communities in District 622 can give their youngsters a head start with a several-day session this August on bus safety, crosswalk safety, stranger awareness, 911 use and half a dozen other safety-related topics, all for about the same cost the family pays for dinner at Wendy's.

It sounds like a pretty good value, especially considering my own "safety precautions."

In the town where I grew up, there were no "Safety Town" classes and no crossing guards. Faced with the prospect of her bespectacled 4-year-old crossing busy U.S. Highway 2 to get from home to kindergarten, my mother entrusted my safety to a 5-year-old.

After all, Lisa, the 5-year-old, had lived in "a big city" before, and so, my mother reasoned, was more traffic-savvy than I was. Of course, for comparison, this metropolis we're talking about would be about the size of North St. Paul, if you plopped it down in miles of forest on the Iron Range. However, it was equipped with more traffic and so more traffic lights than our community — not hard, since we had a single blinking stoplight — and presumably someone who'd gone anywhere on foot and lived to 5 there would be better prepared than I to make the daily journey to afternoon kindergarten.

I didn't argue then, and I wouldn't now. I'd hardly stirred out of my own backyard back in 1971, and my bookish nature and thick glasses certainly didn't inspire confidence.

In contrast, even as a kindergartner, Lisa carried with her a palpable sophistication. Was it related to her "urban" background? Her interestingly widowed and dyed-blonde mother? The hair-toss and eye-roll she'd already perfected to deal with us small-town rubes?

For a few weeks, my mother walked me up to the corner where Lisa waited to shepherd me safely to school. I'm not sure what the benefit to Lisa was, other than daily demonstrated superiority.

As planned, we made it back and forth with little trouble, safely avoiding logging trucks, semi-tractor trailers and passenger cars. Probably also as planned, after a few weeks, nobody's mother had to walk to the corner where we met; it was a rarity for me to see any kind of vehicle before I reached the corner, and then Lisa was there to take over navigation.

I did learn a few things on the way to school. There was the lovely, sunny May morning we dawdled the whole way, poking bugs in the cracks between the sidewalk slabs, picking dandelions by the handful and gazing at flower gardens in front of houses. As we wandered onto the deserted playground, it was obvious the last bell had rung and everybody else was in school. I was aghast. In my rather limited scholastic career, I'd never made such a huge misstep. If my reading had progressed at that point past the Bobbsey Twins, I probably would have expected the secretary in the principal's office to embroider a scarlet "T" on my shirt.

Lisa was unfazed. As I dithered, bug-eyed, outside the building, she said, "We'll just say my mother drove us and her car broke down." Unfamiliar with dissembling or auto mechanics, I blurted "But if your mother drove us, we'd have gotten here faster than walking!"

I can't recall, but I probably got the hair toss and the eye roll for that.

As I skulked into the classroom and slid into my desk as unobtrusively as I could, Lisa explained something — I know not what — to Mrs. Kukura, then walked calmly to her desk and sat down with the expression of a rather worldly angel.

By that point, thanks to association with Lisa, I knew better than to try to ape sophistication I didn't have. One afternoon during the winter, the pair of us had been chattering as we walked home, and as we concentrated on avoiding icy patches and drifts, Lisa was complaining about school in her world-weary way. Anxious to "fit in" with this peer group of one, I declared "I hate school!" although nothing could be further from the truth. Even while saying it, I felt a pang of guilt for betraying beloved Mrs. Kukura.

My comeuppance wasn't far behind me, probably about 10 inches. "Oh, you do, do you?" boomed a voice from somewhere in the clouds, as my knit hat was snatched off my head. Whipping around to find the source of this cosmic vengeance, I saw a grinning blond TEENAGER — much more frightening to me then than any tonnage of logging trucks — in a letter jacket, looming miles above me.

The teen sauntered down the walk to his house as I lingered on the sidewalk in shock. "Aren't you going to get your hat?" Lisa demanded. I'm not sure I was even able to answer her. "Well, I will," she said. "Hey! Give my friend back her hat!" she shrilled, sprinting down the walk and INTO THE HOUSE as I wondered if I should yell for help, wave down a driver on the highway, or run to the sheriff's office. I was pretty sure I'd never see her again.

But here she came, confidently striding down the steps as the porch door swung shut behind her, my hat in her hand. "Here," she said. As I stammered thanks and asked how she'd accomplished such a miracle, she shrugged, "It was nothing."

Lisa proved a good defense for me against traffic and numerous other hazards. But I'm pretty sure youngsters in a metropolitan suburb need more — and more is being provided. Look elsewhere in this issue for information on Safety Town and how to sign up. It's probably in your child's best interests to learn safety measures on their own.

That way, maybe it'll take them until first grade to learn to come up with "alibis" for being tardy.

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