Our mop-pushing heroes

As President Bush and Congress continue to discuss and debate various measures for helping our children do better in the classroom, I would like to suggest the establishment of an emergency fund to support a group of workers who form an essential but often overlooked pillar of the educational system: The school custodians.

I do not envy janitors. Their daily "to do" list is usually filled with grueling and disagreeable chores. They deserve gratitude and respect, but more often than not they are ridiculed, scorned, or simply ignored by large numbers of students and parents. And, as an added insult, when school budgets are squeezed tight, the sanitation staff may be viewed as expendable.

This is where a federal custodial superfund would come in handy. No district should ever have to consider the option of saving money by firing janitors and using private contractors to handle the work. That idea may seem practical on paper, but it falls apart in the hallways of the real world.

Being a school janitor involves more than just wiping off desktops and pushing mops. They are the frontline troops of school security, always alert for strangers who don't belong on campus. They keep tabs on the infrastructure, making sure the heating, ventilation, and electrical systems are all functioning. And then, sad to say, they always have bathroom disasters to contend with.

For reasons I will never understand, some children revert to a state of barbarism when they enter a school bathroom, and they behave like tiny Visigoths re- enacting the sack of Rome. In spite of such ongoing tribulations, there are plenty of custodians who are happy to make contributions above and beyond the duties listed on their job descriptions.

Mr. Mike, the janitor at my daughter's elementary school, has been giving her violin lessons for the past three years. Mr. Mike's co-worker, John, has used a lot of his spare time setting up and maintaining a saltwater aquarium in the library. They both also do landscaping, painting, and assorted repair jobs around the building – and let's not leave out the daily raising and lowering of the American flag.

So it irritates me when custodians are treated with disdain. A middle-school principal recently told me that when she patrols her school cafeteria and asks someone to pick up a piece of litter, the typical responses are, "I didn't drop it," or "The janitor will clean it up." I am tempted to call the parents of such students and pose two questions: (a) Why does your child think it's OK to back talk the principal? and (b) Do you allow visitors to treat your home like a giant garbage can and drop litter without picking it up?

Yes, I know it's a harsh, uncompromising attitude, but this is one of my hot-button issues.

I think about it every time I bend over to pick up a discarded candy wrapper or paper cup. Janitors are dealing with our bad habits every day. We depend on their help. We should never treat a person like a disposable item.

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