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Changing of the guard

Cook guides Ripon students home safely

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Changing of the guard

Michele Cook stops traffic and watches the cross walks at Ripon Elementary on Tuesday afternoon. Cook, who gets some assistance from Judy Haarberg (not pictured), was hand-picked to replace longtim...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

POSTED January 30, 2013 12:37 a.m.

The bell rings and the calm of the afternoon is shattered by hundreds of happy feet.

They all cascade toward the corner of Acacia Avenue and Main Street, where Ripon Elementary crossing guard Michele Cook – no taller than many of kids – has been entrusted with their safety and travels.

Her charge: Get them across the street and on their way.

The challenge: Morning and afternoon traffic, thousand-pound cars and impatient drivers.

Her tools: A neon green vest, a red STOP sign, a whistle and the courage to step out into traffic.

Game on.

“The responsibility is a large one, because they’re helping kids and parents getting to and from school safely in the morning,” Ripon Elementary Principal Michael Larson said.

“That’s tough, because people in cars have their own agendas and they want to get where they’re going. I don’t want to say it’s a thankless job, but I think in that job you get a fair share of hostile people. You wouldn’t think that was the case, but some people ignore the sign.”

Cook is one of two crossing guards at Ripon Elementary. Judy Haarberg works Monday and Wednesday mornings, while Cook works the morning and afternoon shifts on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, as well as Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

Together, they fill a void left behind by Dorothy Patterson, who watched over Ripon’s school-aged children for 50 years.

Patterson was rough and rigid, Larson said, with a style all her own.

“We were spoiled,” Larson said, “but (Cook and Haarberg) have done well. Initially, it’s tough because it’s a lot of kids and a lot of adults, and everyone wants to cross on their own timing.

“It’s tough for not only the crossing guards, but those that are used to how things were done for 50 years.”

But Larson handpicked Cook for a reason. The 2008 Ripon High grad exemplifies all the virtues in a crossing guard, he says: She’s attentive, dependable, responsible and invested.

The only question was whether Cook would take the position, which pays her $12 an hour. Cook said the she mulled over her decision for a week; she wasn’t sure she wanted to give up her mornings.

Larson is glad she did.

“I like to see the kids, the smile on their faces and the things they say,” she said. “There is this one kid who runs across the street every morning and tells his dad ‘See you tomorrow.’ Really, he’ll see him after school. It makes me laugh. It’s so cute.”

Cook and Haarberg have learned on the fly.

“It’s pretty much ‘Here’s your whistle. Here’s your sign. Make sure you hold it up. Blow it before you go out.’ It’s a little bit of instruction, but a lot of learning while you’re out there,” Larson said.

“They’ve done well,” he later added, shining praise on Cook and Haarberg. “We’ve been lucky.”

Cook has it down, controlling the flow of foot and road traffic on the busiest day of the week.

It’s Monday, which means all grades at Ripon Elementary get out of school at the same time. Typically, school lets out at two different times, thinning out the crowds on the corner.

Not on Mondays, though.

Cook, who must also contend with traffic from Ripon High, walks to the middle of the intersection, blowing her whistle to alert cars, students and parents alike.

They’re on her watch now.

She holds up the sign and scans the crosswalks. Kids dart in every direction, chasing each other across the roadways – completely comfortable in Cook’s care.

She made four trips to the middle of the intersection on Monday without incident before tucking her sign underneath her arm and disappearing back onto campus.

While most have gone home for the afternoon, her day is just beginning.

Cook isn’t just a crossing guard at Ripon Elementary. The 23-year-old student at Modesto Junior College is also an instructional assistant with Stone Soup, Ripon Unified School District’s after-school program.

There, she helps kindergarten through eighth-grade students with their homework assignments and studying.

It’s all part of her master plan. She is studying children development at MJC, though she’s yet to target a career.

“I just know I want to work with little kids or special-needs kids,” she said.

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