I walked down the stairs in the art hallway and knocked on the door of the Custodian’s supply room right after school, when the night-shift custodians would just be arriving. It’s tucked into a corner behind double doors and, peering in, I could make out bulky custodial equipment and a conference room. Upon being invited inside, I was able to talk with Head Custodian Mark Kimball and custodians Frederick Word and Mohammed Miah.
As I sat at the large, square table and took notes, Mr. Word gave me the low-down on how work was divided up. “Each custodian has a designated area that they clean up,” he said. “My area starts in the copy room, and I go all the way down to the TV room. Everything on the lower half down to that area is my responsibility. When I finish that area, I go to the Fitness Center area. I’m responsible for the hallways there and the boys’ locker room.”
I knew from talking with Union President of Custodians and Maintenance Juan Ochoa that there are currently three day-shift custodians (from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and six night-shifters (2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.). Mr. Ochoa, a day-shift custodian, had already explained to me the difference between day and night shifts and how he begins his day.
“The day guys take care of, for instance, the auditorium, the cafeteria, but not the classrooms,” he said. “We take care of the classrooms if an emergency happens. It’s different because the night guys clean every single classroom and office.”
Mr. Ochoa also told me about a focus of day-shifters. “One of the biggest messes is the cafeteria,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve gotten a chance to see how it looks out there after all the kids finish lunch. So we start at around 12:40 and at about 2:00, we finish our time there.”
When I had walked into the lounge during the lunch period to meet Mr. Juan Ochoa for our interview, I found myself paying more attention to the chaos around me. I noticed that even though garbage bins were easily accessible by students—either right next to them or a short walk away—food remains and containers still littered the plastic cafeteria tables and the floor. Mr. Ochoa’s statement about the cafeteria being the biggest mess didn’t surprise me at all.
I wondered if this was ever frustrating for the custodians. “Yes, it is,” Mr. Ochoa answered me. “Some kids care, other kids just throw things on the floor or throw garbage into the recycling bins. So for me, it’s like, I just tried to keep that clean.”
Mr. Ochoa told me that he’s tried to teach his two daughters about the importance of throwing items into the right bins because it’s been something he’s had to deal with at work.
Mr. Ochoa was not alone in his frustration. “This is high school,” Mr. Miah told me. “We expect a little bit of responsibility—the bathrooms, the cafeteria. People spit in the mirrors, the sinks, the fountains. There is gum, and especially tobacco—there is chewing tobacco all over the school, especially in the bathrooms. I see spit from tobacco in water bottles by the toilets, and in the hallways.”
Mr. Word echoed the sentiments of the other custodians. “If I had my way, I would love for a kid to kind of tag along with us one night—they would have a newfound respect for what the custodians do at ,” he said. “It would change them and how they go about throwing away—or not throwing away—garbage.”
At this opportunity, I offered myself to be that kid. My offer appeared to be surprising and the custodians I was sitting with were a little taken aback. Instead of tagging along, they suggested that I go to the library before and after school to take a look at the messes that kids create. They told me to look in all the crevices and really see how much garbage ended up in a place that was supposed to be food- and drink-free.
I agreed, and when I went in the morning, the library looked pretty much pristine. There was a piece of paper here or there, probably from the librarians already at school. But when I came back after school, I couldn’t believe I had never truly noticed how disgusting the library gets. Bottles, food wrappers, gum, bits of tinfoil were all shoved under the tables in the quiet section. Errant papers and wrappers were strewn all about the library. Sure, I’d been guilty of the occasional granola bar in the quiet section before, but I was struck by how messy this place had become—rival, almost, to the cafeteria (almost).
Cleaning all this up has recently become more of a challenge due to short-handedness. “One of the most challenging things now is if we’re short-handed, which is quite frequent,” Mr. Kimball said. “We’re not allowed any substitutions or overtime so we do the best we can. What gets done is kind of what gets done, and that’s unfortunate.”
Although the job of custodians is far from easy, my conversations led me to discover highlights of their careers. For Mr. Ochoa, who worked at for eight years before coming to the high school where he’s worked seven so far, it was watching the kids grow up.
“When I came to the high school, I had the opportunity to see kids who I saw in Kindergarten, and could see them when they were ready to graduate,” he said. “That was for me like ‘Oh my God, they’re in college already.’’”
Similarly to Mr. Ochoa, Mr. Word’s interactions with kids he knows also makes him happy. Mr. Word was previously a teacher’s assistant for Special Education, an assistant coach for varsity football and the head coach for girl’s track. “I know a ton of kids and kids know me,” he told me. “When I come in, they’re leaving or out at their practices. But the beautiful thing is that some know my area, and the girls run through the school when it’s cold outside so they stop and say hi. I usually talk to them.”
The custodians described their relationship with the NCHS faculty and student body as a strong one. They told me that there was a lot of friendliness and trust among everyone. Though the custodians like to focus on work because they want to finish in a timely manner, they told me that students will ask for help when they need it and that trust is not an issue.
Mr. Ochoa gave me an example of this trust. “I found one person’s wallet with money, a driver’s license, credit cards—but there was no phone number or anything,” he said. “So I just looked at her name and looked in the phone book, called her and let her know that I had her wallet, and to not worry about it. I told her she could pick it up the next day if she came in and asked any of the custodians. She called me back and said thank you for everything. I feel good because that’s the trust of the people in the New Canaan—when something is lost, they know that we will take care of that.”
Just as Mr. Word had hoped, I left my interviews with a new found respect for everything the custodians have done and will continue to do.