Caught Off Guard

Here's a long-kept-secret story of a boy named Ron who was captain of the Safety Patrol in 6th grade at a homey little elementary school in Berea, Ohio. One of the captain's "staff" members was a bold little girl who didn't seem to be intimidated by the fact that most of the other guards on staff were boys. She had signed right up and Ron thought that was so cool of her to be a part of this new Women's Lib thing here in the 1970s. Her teacher informed Ron that the girls should get no special treatment. Despite his strict upbringing with chauvinistic Italian beliefs about being gentle with girls, Ron committed himself to treat everyone the same.  But he sure thought something about that little girl was special.

During the mornings and afternoons when the guards were at their assigned posts, Ron walked from site to site to be sure all was in order. It was a big responsibility for 12-years old. One evening Ron's mother informed him that she had received an important call from the girl's mother. "She will not be at her post tomorrow," she said. "Her grandmother has passed on."

Understanding the importance of his job, Ron called upon one of his "reserves" to fill her post that day. As Ron made his rounds that morning, he decided this situation may be just the opportunity he was looking for to finally speak to her without appearing to show any favoritism or above all any interest; absolutely taboo in 6th grade. (“You LIKE girls???”)  After all, maintaining professionalism stood above all things--Ron wanted to remain diligent in his duties. Sixth grade is a peak of sorts you know?

 So he pondered and he thought and he mulled it over all night and decided the thing to do was to express empathy. The line was to be, "Good morning ...  So sorry to hear about your grandmother." He knew it was just the right thing to say, in his mind she would immediately see his sensitivity beneath his manly captain exterior. He practiced it into the mirror that morning after he brushed his teeth.

 And now it was time. The morning shift had begun. Everyone was at their assigned posts.  Ron walked the halls and glanced out the windows at his guards at their assigned intersections and with his heart in his throat he turned down that hallway heading to the doors that she was assigned to.

 "So sorry to hear about your grandmother."

"So sorry to hear about your grandmother."

"So sorry to hear about your grandmother."

"So sorry to hear about your grandmother."

Ron kept whispering his line to himself and now she was right before him. She turned and smiled and the captain saw those grey eyes looking right into his and he said,

 "How's your grandmother?"

 And she said,


 And he said,


 And with that he opened the door and went outside exhaling what little air he had left in him.

 “What an idiot I am!”  he said to himself.

He walked with fake-confidence around the corner and almost collapsed with flop sweat once he had turned out of site. It would be months until he worked up the nerve to even look at her again and even then it was only to say something like, "Are you gonna use that kickball or could I have it?"

Yes, folks, I can fill you with stories week after week about how you need to be strong, lead strong, be fearless, etc. but I’m quite sure there are still people that rattle my cage and throw off my rhythm every bit as much as they did when I was 12 years old. Back then, it was a 12-year-old girl with a lot of confidence. Now it could be a strong-willed client, angry customer or even upset supervisor.

I just wanted to share and contrast that story from 44 years ago with you.

As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Good listening, teaching, living skills arrive at your doorstep sometimes when we least expect it. Practice becoming better at things that you know you are challenged by. If you shake when you talk to people, put yourself in positions where you can practice getting better at it. Tell a joke at the family dinner table to practice your presentation skills and get your timing down for delivering a punch line now and then. If your papers shake when you hold them as you speak in public, don’t hold paper. If your knees knock, sit down. Know thyself and your tendencies and employ defenses to get you through.  In time, after repetition, things get easier. You never know when you may want that kickball back and you gotta be ready to ask for it when it comes time.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at