Before my kids went to primary school I never took any notice of the people doing school-crossing duties. In fact, I didn’t even appreciate that it was actually someone’s job.
Then I met Wal. For many years Wal, a retiree, did crossing duties at my kids school. Twice a day he would greet the parents and kids with a smile and a gentle conversation while assisting them across the street. Rain, hail, or shine he was there for years. He knew all the kids names and most of the parents. He watched my kids grow up. Everyone loved him. We loved him. At Christmas the parents would bring him gifts and the pile next to the crossing would have made Santa proud.
Then he got sick with cancer and passed away. It was a gut-wrenching moment for the school community. His funeral too was a bigger affair than what you would expect for an old guy helping kids cross the street. But it was his influence on the community from his daily interaction with them that meant so much to a lot of people. In their eyes he was a noble man doing important work. I understand that now.
Last year I became the coach of my oldest son’s U14 basketball team. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. The incumbent coach pulled out at the last moment and with two days to go before the season started I reluctantly put my hand up. I had never played or coached basketball before and I knew the learning curve would be steep. We started slowly and were beaten easily for the first few weeks. Then bit by bit the team improved. Each week the scores got closer and in the last two games we drew with the No 1 team and beat the other grand finalist. The boys were magnificent.
Until I did it coaching a junior basketball team in a suburban competition seemed like a small, inconsequential thing. I don’t believe that now. In fact, I believe that it was some of the most important work I’ve ever done. Coaching 8 impressionable boys into better basketball players who play hard, but fair, and respect each other and their opponents is tough. Teaching discipline and teamwork while keeping it fun is tough. Not to mention consoling them after a bad loss and teaching them humility when they finally get that sweet, elusive victory. It was a metaphor for life.
I don’t think I’ll ever measure up to the gentle humility and nobility of Wal but I have come to understand that the ‘important’ work being done out there, the stuff that matters, that will bring a smile to your lips while you’re reminiscing in old age might actually be that rainy day in July when you’re hustling those laughing school kids across the school crossing or teaching your own son and his teammates how to set an on- ball screen on a suburban basketball court. I really hope so.