I Will Pay You to Fire Me: My Life as a Custodian
By Katelyn Franco
“How does one become a janitor?” A question posed by John Bender in John Hughes’ classic 1985 movie, The Breakfast Club, is one that I happen to have the answer to. To become a custodian in the Raymond School System, I first had to send in my application. Then I waited five weeks for a response. Once I finally got a response, I went in for an interview in which all of the questions were seemingly completely unrelated to the tasks I would perform as a custodian, such as “Describe a time when you made a mistake and how you fixed the mistake,” and “If you caught someone stealing from your place of employment, would you report them?” We are custodians, what is there worth stealing? Your options range from cleaning products and rags to machines so large you could not possibly sneak them out of the building undetected. No theft was going on there. It is worth noting that Todd, the head of maintenance, was just as bad at interviewing as I was at being interviewed. I told my mom this later and she said it was because we are both “socially awkward as hell.” (Thanks, Mom.)
Todd hired me on the spot, probably because my mom is a full time custodian in the district, but a little nepotism never hurt anybody. He then told me that as a substitute custodian, I would make eight dollars and fifty cents an hour and work twenty-nine hours a week. He told me that there was a mandatory meeting at the high school the Friday before the first Monday of summer work and sent me on my way. “What a wonderful world,” I thought. “I am now employed.” The wonderful feeling did not last long.
The meeting was pretty standard. All the custodians from the three schools in our district gathered in the high school library and then Todd talked at us for about an hour. “Subs answer to full timers, full timers answer to head custodians, head custodians answer to me,” Todd said, looking around the room at our disinterested faces. There were a few other instructions he set for us to follow, and most of them seemed like common sense to me. Cut or scrape away from yourself when using a box cutter or a paint scraper. Do not distract someone when they are climbing a ladder. Do not spray each other with the chemicals. He did not say cleaning products, he said chemicals. I thought at first that it was just a mistake, because I figured we would be using clorox and windex or something like that. Nope. We used industrial strength cleaning products which, when sprayed, filled the room with a smell that was indeed very chemical in nature. My first summer on the job was the same summer that the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons was released and I suddenly connected all too well with the lyrics “I’m breathing in the chemicals.”
I learned a lot in my first week on the job, the most important thing being that when it came to which group I worked in, I had two options: I could work with a group of 3-4 teenage boys who made sexist jokes all the time, constantly broke the rules, and generally just didn’t do their jobs, or I could work with a group of 2-3 women in their mid-fifties who did their job most of the time but were generally pretty lax, told funny stories and joked around all the time. I immediately decided that I would be working with the fifty-year-old women. One of these women was Dorothy.
“Don’t touch the chairs,” my mom told me as we drove to what would be my first day of work. “Dorothy does chairs.”
“Okay,” I replied, “I won’t touch the chairs.” I had no desire to touch the chairs. Who the hell wants to clean chairs that dirty little kids have been sitting in for an entire school year? Apparently, no one does. Except Dorothy. We walked into the first classroom and waited for everyone else to arrive. In walked Dorothy about ten minutes late and sure enough, she sat on a rolling chair and immediately started cleaning student chairs. I later realized that Dorothy cleaned the chairs because doing so meant that she got to sit down the entire time and because chairs took as long as the rest of the room, meaning that if she did chairs, she wouldn’t have to help us clean anything else.
One day during my third summer, we came back to work one Monday morning to find that the art room, which we had begun cleaning late Thursday morning, still wasn’t finished. The way our schedules worked, subs had to leave at noon on Thursdays to make our work week twenty-nine hours. This left the full timers, Dorothy, Richard, Fred, and my mom alone for the next three hours on Thursday and for all of Friday. Richard, the head custodian, did not help us clean as he had other things to take care of, like fixing broken furniture, replacing locks, or retiling floors. Fred was about eighty years old and walked about as quickly as molasses drips out of a jar. He was also apparently very well off and liked to mention from time to time how he did not really need the money provided to him by his bi-weekly paycheck. Fred really should have retired at least ten years prior to the start of my custodial career and no one had any idea why he was still working. He also happened to be out for most of this particular summer, due to having his second hip replacement surgery. My mother had to go home sick that Thursday, which left Dorothy on her own. Dorothy, when left to her own devices, did not do her job. At all. She would sit in the most comfortable chair she could find, take out her cell phone, and stay on it until it was time to go home. My mom often had to run around the school fixing and fetching things or answering stupid questions for teachers and administrators, so Dorothy was alone for most of Friday, as well.
“Morning, Dorothy,” I said, walking into the school on Monday morning.
“Good morning,” she replied.
“Where are we today?” I asked.
“Art room,” Dorothy answered.
“Still?” I asked in disbelief. I’ve cleaned this room for the last two summers now and it has never taken us two full days to get through, so how could this possibly be our third day in there?
“Well you guys all left early on Thursday and I was alone on Friday.”
“What still needs to be done?” I asked trying to hide my annoyance.
“Tables, shelves, walls, counters, floor, rug needs to be vacuumed, sink needs to be cleaned.” As she listed more tasks to be completed my irritation grew to a whole new level. That was everything. That was literally everything in the room. Except…
“What did you do all day Friday?” I asked, knowing exactly what she was going to say before she even opened her mouth.
“Chairs,” she said simply.
“Chairs. All day? That’s it?”
Are you kidding me? Are you actually kidding me? This woman who is making like four dollars an hour more than I am was in that room for eight hours on Friday and all she did was chairs? Chairs only take like two hours tops. Did she clean every chair in the building? Did she go to the other schools and clean all their chairs, too? How the hell did she manage to parlay cleaning chairs into an eight hour job?
“Okay,” I sighed, defeated and knowing that it was going to be a very long day. “See you in there.”
Dorothy’s least favorite room, due to the fact that it severely lacked chairs, was the kitchen. The kitchen was also everyone else’s least favorite room, but I never understood why. That is until I was one of the people cleaning it.
“We’re doing the kitchen today,” Mom informed me as we pulled into the school parking lot. I was kind of relieved. I had cleaned the kitchen at home tons of times. How hard could cleaning the school kitchen be?
We walked into the building, grabbed the cart containing our cleaning supplies, and wheeled it off to the kitchen. I had not seen the elementary school kitchen since I was about nine years old, and I didn’t remember it looking like it belonged in a prison, but I swear, I would have been more comfortable in an abandoned cell in Alcatraz. Maybe the one they say is haunted by Al Capone’s ghost. Surely he would have been better company than the score of health code violations I found in that kitchen.
The first thing I noticed were the spiders. Spiders on the ceiling, spiders on the shelves, spiders underneath the counters. Everywhere. It was like that scene in the second Harry Potter movie, except if the spiders had been leading me to a dark forest, that would have been fine, because food for tiny humans isn’t prepared in the dark forest.
Next, I noticed that there was a cricket somewhere in the room. It was somewhere by the walk in freezer where Richard had caught a mouse a couple of weeks earlier. All morning, we listened to the obnoxious chirp of that cricket while we cleaned, all of us refusing to be the one who risked seeing a mouse to find it. By the time we came back from our lunch break, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had been listening to that damn cricket for six hours and I was done waiting for someone else to do something about it.
I moved the small wooden ramp that led up to the freezer and looked down, expecting to find the cricket. Instead, my eyes widened in horror as I saw something even worse: a baby toad. I stood there, frozen for a moment, not sure whether to just put the ramp back and walk away or calmly ask one of my coworkers to rescue the little intruder and take it outside. Then it jumped. And so did I. I dropped the ramp and ran across the kitchen screaming “GET IT GET IT GET IT!” like the brave soul that I am.
“What is it,” my mom asked, rolling her eyes, “a spider?”
“Toad,” I said, sitting safely on the counter on the other side of the room.
My mom looked up, slightly puzzled, like she hadn’t heard me correctly. “It’s a what?” she asked in disbelief.
“Toad. It’s a toad, mom. Can you please take it outside? I hate toads.”
Mom looked at me like I had eight heads and went to move the ramp again. The toad took it’s opportunity to escape and hopped right past my mom, who looked at me wide eyed, unable to believe that I had actually been telling the truth.
“I TOLD YOU! NOW GET IT!” I yelled, refusing to leave the countertop.
Mom finally managed to get the toad into a corner and at that point, I figured she was just going to pick it up and carry it outside, so I was very surprised when I saw her turn on the vacuum cleaner she had been holding, suck the toad up into the vacuum and proceed with her work like nothing had happened.
Dorothy had left the room to take a phone call before this fiasco occurred, so naturally I had to fill her in when she returned to the kitchen. I did not realize that Dorothy was an animal lover, and she was horrified upon hearing what had happened to the toad.
“Ann!” Dorothy exclaimed, “You could have just brought it outside!”
“I could have,” my mother responded indifferently.
“Give me that!” Dorothy demanded, snatching the vacuum cleaner out of Mom’s hand.
“Oh, what are you going to do, Dorothy? Look through the bag and find it?” my mom asked, her words dripping with sarcasm. What Mom didn’t tell Dorothy was that the vacuum she had used to dispose of the toad had a full bag so she had gone and switched it with a different vacuum before Dorothy returned to the kitchen.
“Yes,” Dorothy said, more determined to find that toad than I’d ever seen her determined to finish a task at work.
“Well good luck,” my mom said, “I sucked up a bunch of little rocks after it, so it’s probably dead.”
Dorothy paid her no mind, taking the vacuum apart and searching through the bag about three times. She never found the toad.
About an hour later, still wary of the area by the freezer after the toad incident, I realized that the cricket was still chirping.
“Dorothy, if you help me find the cricket, I’ll let you bring it outside,” I said hoping she would take me up on the offer.
“Okay,” Dorothy agreed, and we walked closer to the freezer. “I think it’s coming from the ramp,” she said, looking confused.
“Well you can move the ramp,” I said. “I’m not touching that thing again.”
Dorothy picked up the ramp and walked outside with it. I followed, making sure there were no unwelcome amphibians following me.
“I think it’s stuck in the crack between the wood,” Dorothy said when we got outside. She flipped the ramp upside down and hit it against the pavement a few times. Sure enough, out fell the noisy culprit we’d been working around all day. It hopped off into the parking lot, and Dorothy went back inside, glad she could save at least one unwanted pest that day. I followed behind her, thinking about all the bugs and animals we’d found in the kitchen that summer.
“Mom, you let us eat here,” I said to her in mild disbelief. Just ten years prior, my mother, my own flesh and blood, had subjected my siblings and me to eating food prepared in this kitchen. We were tiny, defenseless children, and she was letting us eat food contaminated by god knows what. I seriously doubted the standards of cleanliness in that kitchen had been any higher a decade earlier.
“You didn’t die, did you?” my mother asked as if I was overreacting. Had she not heard about the mouse? Did she not see any of the dozens of spiders? The cricket? She had vacuumed up a toad for God’s sake! Was she just going to ignore all of that? I left work that day mourning the well being of the children who would attend that school in a few short weeks and vowing that my children would never eat food prepared in a school cafeteria.
My mom was never one for pity, at home or at work. That’s not to say that she wouldn’t care for us if we were sick or anything like that, but as far as little things were concerned, you were to brush them off and go back to what you were doing. During my first summer, I cut my finger on one of the fluorescent lights when I was helping one of the boys replace the burnt out bulbs. The boy started to tell me that I needed to fill out an accident report (you know, just in case the cut got infected with staph and I ended up going into septic shock and dying or something, the school would be covered and Todd could say that it wasn’t his fault), but my mom just waved her hand nonchalantly and told me to put a bandaid on it and get back to work. That was fine by me, as I really didn’t want to fill out the first accident report of the summer, especially not for something as stupid as cutting my finger on a lightbulb. If I had to fill out an accident report, I wanted it to be for something good, like falling off of a ladder and out of a window or getting bitten by a radioactive spider and developing super powers.
I’ve always felt like my mom and I had a pretty good relationship. Most of my friends parents were divorced or separated and none of my friends ever had overwhelmingly positive things to say about their mothers, so I was always happy to be that obnoxious friend who could brag about how great her mom was. After working with my mom and watching her run around for eight hours at the school, sometimes even longer than that if something was happening that required a full timer to stay late, I understood why she didn’t want to do much by the time she got home. I did considerably less work than she did and even I didn’t want to move by the time I was out of work. She was everyone’s go-to person when something went wrong. Everyone’s. Teachers, administrators, other custodians, even Todd called her when he needed a task completed and wanted it done right. So on top of practically running the maintenance program at the elementary school and fixing everything that went wrong there, she was also working her second job at Walgreen’s, and being a wife and mother of four. It was understandable that she just wanted an hour or so to herself before she had to go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again. It’s difficult to overlook how hard working your mother is when every day is Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.
I would say my third summer was probably the most eventful, and somehow it was simultaneously the best and worst summer of them all. One of the most notable events of the summer was the asbestos removal that was going to take place in the back half of the building. The subs found out about it three days before summer work was set to start at the annual beginning-of-summer work meeting.
“Mom, were you not even going to tell me that there was asbestos in the building?” I asked her after the meeting. Surely the full timers had found out before now? The removal had to have been scheduled at least a week in advance.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she told me nonchalantly, “It’s only a problem if the floor tiles crack open.”
“Didn’t you also have to replace a whole bunch broken floor tiles in the gym this year?”
“Yup. Don’t worry, it will be fine.” She was so calm. Not a care in the world. Just your average day at work surrounded by potentially life threatening disease causing particles.
The asbestos removal workers showed up during the second week of the summer. They were all Hispanic men and I could barely understood them when they spoke. They set up giant sheets of plastic to protect the rest of the building from asbestos as they worked to remove it. These giant sheets of plastic had red caution tape going across them that read: DANGER ASBESTOS. Above the caution tape on each set of doors was a sign: DANGER. ASBESTOS. CANCER AND LUNG DISEASE HAZARD. KEEP OUT. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. RESPIRATORS AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING ARE REQUIRED IN THIS AREA. The whole thing was strongly reminiscent of a bad sci-fi movie. I lived for weeks in constant fear that an asbestos-covered alien monster was going to burst through the plastic sheet and take us all captive. Unfortunately, this never happened and we all remained able to continue working.
One thing I will say about our group was that we all did our best to make light of the fact that we were stuck in our less than desirable jobs. The asbestos workers were in the building for three weeks. During the second week, my mother seemed to think that they should have been done by then.
“They sure are taking a long time removing that stuff,” she remarked one day.
With her words, I saw an opportunity. I’ve never been able to decide if I’m proud or ashamed at how fast the pun came to mind, but I said it anyway, repercussions be damned.
“Come on, mom,” I said sarcastically. “I’m sure they’re doing asbestos they can!”
There were five people in the room other than myself. None of them laughed. My mother and Dorothy gave me a look as if to say “I cannot believe you just said that.” My brother, Michael, who also worked with us, looked at me blankly and said, “I hate you.” Billy smirked, but he was the new kid, and no one else had laughed so he was not going to, either. Fred also said nothing and seemed unresponsive, but we were all fairly certain Fred was losing his hearing in his old age, so I let that one go. Maybe he would have laughed twenty years ago.
In response to Bender’s question in The Breakfast Club, Carl, the janitor, looks quite surprised when asking Bender, “You want to be a janitor?” When he realizes that he is being made fun of, he fires back at Bender, informing him and his fellow students that he knows he is considered the bottom of the food chain, but also that he knows everything that goes on in the building. “I am the eyes and ears of this institution, my friends,” he tells them. And he’s right. The custodians know what’s going on before all of the teachers are even in the loop. We know when there’s going to be a fire drill, we know exactly how a room will be set up for an event, we know which clocks in the building are broken, how many teachers have been promised replacements and how many are actually going to get them on time.
Being a custodian taught me not only how to keep a building up and running and fit for people to inhabit, but also to appreciate the jobs of those we often view as below us. If I was covering my mother’s shift with my brother, I would clean eight classrooms a night. Two of those eight teachers would acknowledge my presence in their classroom, and only one of them ever thanked me or even thought to ask how I was doing. I was treated as subhuman by a majority of the staff members at that school. They all assumed I was an uneducated burden on society who could not be bothered to find a better job. Had they taken the time to talk to me, they would have known that custodial work was the highest paying part time job in town and that I was trying to pay for my own college textbooks rather than putting my parents in the position of having to buy them for me. The teachers at that school would talk to me like I was a child, as if I would not understand them if they spoke to me the way they did to each other. I was pursuing a degree in English, I was certainly more than capable of holding a two minute conversation. But they didn’t care about all that as long as their floors were being vacuumed.
This job was not glamorous. It was hard, manual labor. It was hours and hours of sweating and pulling muscles trying to move heavy furniture with little to no help. It was being talked down to, having people snap their fingers at me to get my attention, as if I were there to serve them. It was sacrificing whole summers, waking up at five-thirty in the morning to be in work at six-thirty and not leaving until three-thirty, sometimes four if mom had to stay late. It was hard. It was dirty. But it was eye-opening. It gave me a respect for custodians and for people in jobs that are similarly looked down on. I thank the cleaning crew members when I see them in the bathrooms or in the dining commons, and I smile at them, because I’ve been there and I know how much it means when you are actually treated like a human on the job, even if just by one person. So, was I very interested in pursuing a career in the custodial arts? No. But that job, that dirty, grimy, grueling job, gave me a new perspective on our roles as humans in society and it made me a better person overall. I would not trade those summers for anything, not for all the toad-free kitchens in the world.
Katelyn Franco is currently in her fourth year at Keene State College where she studies English with concentrations in both literature and writing. She hopes to continue writing in the future, focusing on memoir, autobiography, and creative nonfiction. Katelyn enjoys musicals and herbal tea and hates writing bios.