by Rich Gautier
Lorton, Virginia, USA
I came from a broken home and did not have an easy childhood. Socially, I would rate myself as being “slow.” As a child, getting picked on was a daily occurrence, especially at school. In third grade, I was sent to a child psychologist because I had become violent. But there was something special about the teachers and workers at PS #8. My fourth and fifth grade teachers and that psychologist helped me through it, along with a janitor.
They turned my life and my focus toward something positive. The psychologist did his job. He diagnosed me and helped the teachers to understand my needs. The teachers did their jobs. They taught me the wonders of knowledge. They were fabulous. But the janitor, Danny, did more for my faith in my fellow man than anyone could have ever expected of him.
In the fifth grade, Danny befriended me. I probably got to speaking to him when I went to do eraser duty. The eraser machine was just outside the boiler room, a coal-fed heater for the four-storey building. In wonderment, I must have wandered in and started asking questions. Danny didn’t just rush me out. He patiently explained everything that was there, and I began coming to see him daily.
He treated me as an equal. He listened, he explained, and he shared. I think that last part is what made the difference. If I came early, he’d send me to the little store on the corner for corn muffins, one for each of us. When he went up to the roof to raise the flag, he would teach me how he was doing it, and let me pull the pulley. If the cafeteria freezer broke, half-melted ice cream became my reward for being his friend and helping him clean up. He showed me the coal piles, the sweeping brooms he used, and he talked with me for hours.
He gave me a friendship that I had been unable to find amongst my own peers, and he treated me with respect and friendship.
After spring break, I returned to school and began searching for Danny. The other janitors told me that he died. A gunshot wound during the break, they said. Even as I child I guessed that this was just a joke. The other janitors were always ribbing me. I figured maybe Danny had been let go, or that he had been told not to hang around me anymore.
But his influence is still with me today, 25 years later. I still think about him now and again, wondering what his last name was. I miss him and his companionship a lot. Maybe he never knew how much it meant to me. But it meant everything to a loner child like me, and was much more than I would expect from any janitor. He helped me more than the child psychologist or the other teachers did in that school.
Janitorial duties surely were a lot different in those days.
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 2.