On Guard 

What happened to the days when boys could actually be counted on?

What happened to the days when boys could actually be counted on?

When I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade, I was one of four patrol boys at Burnettown Elementary School in Burnettown, S.C. It was our job to escort the first-graders from the school to two points about a half-mile from the school—one to the east and one to the west. After we’d patrolled ’em for the half-mile, the first-graders were on their own.

The best part of being a patrol boy was getting out of school about an hour early. Sure, we were supposed to come back to class after patrol duty, but we learned pretty fast that if we walked the first-graders slowly, and if we took our time getting back to school, we could effectively kill the hour between first-grade dismissal and our dismissal.

We patrol boys got to wear canvas belts across our chests, with big silver badges pinned to ’em. On rainy days, we got to wear yellow raincoats with matching hoods.

Last night, I told 10-year-old daughter Jess about my patrol boy days. She was astonished.

“How did they pick you?” she asked.

“Our mean old sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Rogers, just pointed at four of us and said, ‘Y’all are the patrol boys.’ That’s the way things happened in those days.”

“Were there any patrol girls?” Jess asked.

“No. Never. Girls weren’t smart or careful or responsible enough to be patrol boys.” (OK, OK. I was kidding. But I wanted to see what she’d say.)

“How old did you say you were?” Jess snapped back.

“Eleven.”

Jess laughed uncontrollably for five solid minutes. “Girls weren’t careful enough to walk first-graders home? And boys were?” She laughed for another two minutes.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m thinking of every 11-year-old boy I know,” she said. “They’re wild. They’re not careful. They tear things up.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I shrugged. “I had the long patrol route. I actually had to walk the first-graders across the highway. Sometimes I had to walk out into the road and stop traffic using nothing but my hand. No whistle, no stop sign, no orange gloves.”

Jess just kept laughing and shaking her head. “Eleven-year-old boys. Careful. Hahahahahaha.”

I must admit, she has a point. These days, what school administrator would put boys just shy of bomb-building age in charge of a bunch of first-graders? Away from the schoolhouse, with no adult supervision? For that matter, what first-graders walk home anymore? Perverts could snatch ’em up. (I promise you, if a pervert had jumped out of the bushes and tried to snatch a kid out of our patrol line, co-patrol-boy Danny Dennis and I would’ve kicked that pervert’s ass.)

All this put me to thinking: What’s changed about 11-year-old boys and first graders and society in general that makes the patrol boy idea seem not just outdated, but downright scary?

Well, I don’t know what’s changed, but I do know this: When I was 11, you could count on a class of 30 (that’s right, 30) sixth-graders to have at least four miniature honest-to-god men. Stand-up guys who could be trusted to protect their little schoolmates, rather than picking on ’em or plotting their death. We even had miniature citizens who’d run out and fetch the flag down off the pole the instant it started to rain—without being told to do it.

By the time we were 16, some of the boys were volunteer firemen. We’d be sitting in algebra class, the alarm at the firehouse would start whooping, and a couple of boys would just jump up and run out the door on their way to fight fire.

All I can figure out is, we must have expected more out of boys in years past. It could be a Southern thing. Just after the Civil War, the genuine men were mostly dead or mangled. The boys were the men. It could be an agrarian thing. When a boy was old enough to load a wagon, he had to load a wagon.

These days, though, what do we expect of the boys? I could be wrong, but I think we expect just about the same thing from them that we expect from the girls. And I suspect the kids will set their goals pretty close to the adults’ expectations.

I know it won’t happen, but let’s just pretend a teacher had to pick a patrol squad today. Of course, she wouldn’t choose just boys. And would she dare limit her choices to the alert, upstanding, responsible types? Nope. Most likely, the patrol children would be chosen by lottery, lawsuit, or both. If we’d done that back in Burnettown, Leon Lewis, the class criminal, could’ve ended up a patrol boy. Inside of a week, he would’ve had the first-graders stealing cigarettes for him, and he would’ve been beating ’em up and taking their lunch money.

So Jess is probably right to laugh at the thought of 11-year-old boys as protectors. I say that’s a dang shame. Ten years from now, we’ll need those little guys to guard the perimeter between the good and the not-so-good. In fact, I suspect we’ll need all the protector-types we can get, girls included. If we want that, we’d better start expecting it of the kids, and we’d better encourage ’em to get a little protector practice in, starting now. We old patrol types aren’t going to be around forever.

Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense. Or you can e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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