Wanda McDonald might have one of the more dangerous 30-minute work shifts in the county, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
At her intersection near Guilford Elementary School in Columbia, where she has been a crossing guard for 18 years, a driver races past her without pausing about once a week, ignoring the stop sign she has thrust out like a shield, she says. And yes, more drivers exceed the speed limit and by a larger margin than they did in years past, she said. But, occasional bad driving aside, her love of children and her neighborhood keep her returning to the post every August.
McDonald, "Miss Stop Sign" as some of the kids call her, likes working with students so much that she works half-hour shifts at Hammond High and Cradlerock schools before she arrives at 8:55 a.m. for her Guilford shift at Oakland Mills Road and Hidden Cove.
As if that weren't enough, when her morning shift ends she switches gears and walks the block back to Guilford Elementary, changes out of her uniform shirt and begins work as an instructional assistant in alternative education. Later in the day, she combines her lunch time and 15-minute break and heads for the afternoon crossing guard shift at Cradlerock. She returns to Guilford Elementary to finish her classroom duties, then dons her uniform again and assists the elementary school students on their way home at 3:55 p.m.
Sounds kind of hectic, McDonald acknowledges, but she wouldn't trade her work for a higher-paying job, which she has been offered.
"In the years I've been here, I've seen it all: women applying makeup as they steer with one hand, drivers on their cell phones, even people reading the newspaper as they head out of the neighborhood," says McDonald, 47. "Even though I'm here every single day at the same exact time, drivers still get annoyed with me when they're delayed by kids crossing the road. But it's fun, and I enjoy the kids and their families."
Though the guards work for the traffic enforcement division of the county Police Department, they can't write tickets for speeding or running a stop sign. But they can request a police officer who can issue a citation.
McDonald says she has done that once, when a teenager repeatedly ran through her stop sign on Guilford Road in front of Hammond High. The sign that a crossing guard brandishes has the same significance as one on a pole, she says.
"The majority of drivers in the community respect what we do, but there are those who get impatient when traffic backs up," says Carol Bess, county crossing-guard supervisor. Bess, who was a crossing guard for three years before taking the supervisor's job in 1994, says, "We see drivers fly through our intersections a lot more than we should."
Since Howard County police Cpl. Scott Wheeler was killed when he was struck by a speeding vehicle when he stepped out onto Route 32 to flag down the driver, guards are even more aware of the inherent danger in working in the road, Bess says.
"But there's no way we can do our jobs without stepping out into the intersection," she says, "so it's a matter of being sure the students don't follow you until you signal them."
McDonald says the students get to know what the guard expects of them, but that there are always new kids to "train" at the beginning of each school year.
"I tell them they are standing at a magic gate, and that they cannot walk through it until I tell them it's safe," she says.
She makes it a priority to learn the children's names and to notice when they are wearing new clothes or have had a manicure. She develops close relationships with them and has attended many of their high school graduation ceremonies, she says.
Guilford Elementary Principal Genee Varlack says the administration is "so fortunate" to have McDonald. "Wanda is the eyes and ears of our community," Varlack says. "She loves our students, and they love her back. She is a very special person who notices what the kids need, anything from gloves to a compliment, then gives it to them."
Bess says she could use a lot more people like McDonald, not only for her dedication to the children but for her long service.
"Sometimes the turnover in this department is as high as 50 percent as school begins each August," she says of her 22-member staff, so she is constantly recruiting new employees who receive on-the-job training.
Guards are posted near 33 of the county's 39 elementary schools and three middle schools. Hammond is the only high school that has a guard to direct traffic. The minimum age to be a crossing guard is 18, but most are stay-at-home mothers and retirees.
McDonald, who has lived down the street from Guilford since 1981, says all three of her children, now ages 16 to 30, attended the school and even had the same kindergarten teacher. She volunteered at the school in those early years, then was a recess monitor. She took the crossing guard job in 1989, then added her instructional assistant's job about seven years ago.
For the children who rely on her to help them cross Oakland Mills Road, she remains a constant, reassuring presence.
"I just know this is the job I should be doing," McDonald says, "and I will keep coming back as long as they'll have me."
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at email@example.com, or call 410-461-4150.