Not Just a Custodian

My maternal grandfather, Mr. John, worked as a custodian in a rural school district for more than 53 years. Long after he died, two acquaintances volunteered information regarding his contributions as a custodian in that small rural school district. They said, “Do you know what your grandfather meant to that school?” and “Do you know he is still there?” It seemed that the Mr. John I knew as my jokester grandfather was, with his third-grade education, as much a teacher and leader in the small rural school district where he was the custodian as those with formal educations—so much so that he is still remembered and storied nearly a decade after his death.

What I uncovered in my doctoral research was that my grandfather was a man who, though lacking worldly goods and educational advantages, used his own insight to discern a path that would navigate him through life. That path was not just as a rural custodian quietly passing his hours in anonymity attending to the mundane. Rather he was a man whose presence impacted the lives of hundreds of students and the other adults who taught and cared for them as they passed through that small rural school district’s wooden hallways, spit-shined with the droplets of perspiration from his labor.

Maxwell photo 1 (600 x 448)What I learned from and about my grandfather (through the persons I interviewed who knew him well) was that although he was a man of simple means serving in an occupation many would not choose or do not respect because of the dirty work involved, he was well-respected in this rural community and possibly the most storied individual to live in this small town. He never completed a high school education, but his influence on the education of thousands of students was immeasurable. One person I interviewed shared, “He gave his whole life to this school—that was his purpose in life.” Another said, “Whatever the job was, he could do it. We knew it and depended on that. We were a poor school district, and we counted on Mr. John’s ingenuity.”

I learned that Mr. John was an expert communicator and “teacher.” He took time to “school” other personnel about the underground grid of utility lines on the city block that housed the entire school district. He also communicated through stories. In his early career, he was close in age to high school students with whom he developed friendships through his storytelling and light-hearted nature; those students ultimately became lifelong friends. Mr. John was center stage not only with the stories he told, but also with the drama he sometimes created—like the time he turned off the valve on a gas leak while puffing away at the ever-present cigarette butt hanging from the side of his lip. In hallway conversations, he regularly lifted everyone out of the day-to-day routine. He could communicate expertly, as I was told, “with everyone from the secretaries in the front office to the superintendent.” As a master communicator and teacher, he created a legacy in that small rural school district.

What Mr. John taught me and others by his example, is that in schools, everyone—in every role—is significant to the success of schools. And that is a great lesson for all of us.

Tomorrow is National Custodial Staff Day. Thank your custodians!

Maxwell photo 3Gerri M. Maxwell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at Texas A&M–Kingsville. She has worked as an educator and public school administrator for nearly 30 years, garnering funding to support initiatives targeting high-need schools.

Originally published in the Kappa Delta Pi Record 49(1).

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