Lessons in Caring From Empty Classrooms

In college, I spent my evenings hanging around abandoned buildings. Actually, I had a night job as a janitor one year in an office complex. Most of the rooms were ordinary offices, but the rooms at the end of the first floor made the job something special.

Officially, these rooms had the title "Classrooms for the Developmentally Disabled." I usually found these two large, colorful playrooms in chaos, and they never really seemed to be empty. I never met the seven kids who came to those rooms every day, but I got to know them well.

I would start working at the back of the larger room, sweeping and dusting my way across, placing chairs upside down on the tables and gathering up toys and stuffed animals until I reached the compartments at the front. Each had a child's name underneath. The marbles would go into a small box in Chester's niche. The brown-and-white teddy bear, which ended up in a different spot each day, belonged to Gina. Crystal's toys and pillows rested neatly in her niche; Peter's always looked as if a hurricane had passed through.

In the adjoining room, the compact kitchen area was always spotless. I would sweep my way over to the bulletin board where pictures of the children hung. New pictures appeared every few weeks with the students' names below, a montage of young faces intent on their activities or reveling in their games.

Drawings and stories decorated the walls around the board, each meticulously autographed by its creator. Chester's artwork was filled with colors spilling over the edges. Angie was diligently mastering the alphabet, but avoided S's and Z's. I would speculate about their activities as I swept up colored rice from the floor one evening or dried beans on another. I never figured out who kept stuffing raisins behind the bookshelf.

One night I found Peter's compartment empty. I watched and worried for days until a letter from him appeared on the bulletin board - a drawing of the public school he was now attending near his home.

My favorite spot was the blackboard where messages began appearing soon after the school year began. The first read "Stevie walked today without braces!" Others soon followed:

"Crystal sang us a song."

"Angie can tie her own shoes."

"Jacob isn't afraid of dogs anymore."

No charts, graphs, or comparisons hung on the walls of these rooms. Progress wasn't measured, it was celebrated.

I found myself wishing my college instructors could use the same system. Imagine having professors write accomplishments on their blackboards:

"Ms. Callister has mastered the Pythagorean theorem."

"Mr. Nguyen has found a special meaning in a Robert Frost poem."

"Ms. Tuckett has clearly outlined the historical significance of the steam engine."

It might have helped us focus more on what we were learning, and less on the grade we might receive. I don't remember now what grade I earned in my chemistry class, but I'll never forget helping the instructor make a real cloud right inside our classroom.

When the school year ended, I received a letter of the alphabet in each of my classes. The kids in the playroom got cake and ice cream. During my last night on the job, I swept up the crumbs and wiped off the icing, returning the rooms to their unnatural state of order and stillness.

I had thought about leaving the children a note to say goodbye, but I realized that although I had learned a lot about them, they knew absolutely nothing about me. As far as they knew, elves or singing mice popped into the rooms at night and tidied up. That would have suited those rooms perfectly.

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