Custodians labor for school

Avantika Khatri

Tidying up: A custodian works after hours Feb. 14 waxing the hallways. Evening janitors work until 11:30 p.m. Each month the janitors rotate jobs, doing tasks such as cleaning the gym, sweeping classrooms, as well as mopping and scrubbing the bathrooms. Photo by Muhammad Al-Rawi.

When most people are asleep or winding down from a long day at work, thirteen custodians on night duty are still here cleaning up after 1,800 students, scrubbing graffiti off bathroom stalls, picking gum off walls, floors and desks and unclogging filthy toilets.

Annabel, Kamal, Vaughan, Corey, Marcus, Dana, Fred, Joel, Tyrone, Adam, Terry, Susy and Walter endure such trials each day until 11:30 p.m., long after the last student leaves the building. Many carry through the entire day with additional pressure from other jobs bearing on them.

Though not a glamorous job, being a custodian for Columbia Public Schools has its benefits. Dana Shepherd worked in many kitchens before assuming his position as the night shift’s working supervisor, and he has found a relaxing atmosphere here.

“It’s not one of those jobs where someone is constantly on your back … that’s what I like about it. The physical part of it is not bad. It’s not a lot of heavy lifting. Lot of walking, more than anything,” Shepherd said. “I tell a lot of guys that … [while working] at McDonald’s you can’t even chew bubble gum. … They don’t realize all the freedom and the gift they got when they’re here.”

The job also provides variety to the night shift custodians. Each month jobs rotate so one person does not suffer through an unpleasant job for months on end. Shepherd issues jobs to the custodians at the beginning of each month, listed on two sheets of paper.

This month Susy Gutierrez’s job was to “spot mop.” She needed to sweep all rooms on one side of the building, along with the locker rooms, room 115, the back hallway, gym, and stage area, all this with an appreciative “thanks” at the end of the description.

“I go and sweep the floors and spot mop. We call it spot mopping because it will take a long time for us to mop the whole room,” Gutierrez said. “So if there’s, like, a big spot after you sweep it, you dust mop it. That’s what it’s called, dust mop. After you do that, then you go to that spot and mop it real quick.”

Gutierrez finds this job the hardest, but she has no trouble once she puts her mind to the task.

One of her jobs, cleaning the gym, requires Gutierrez to wait until basketball practice ends. If there is a home game, she can’t clean locker rooms or other rooms activities are in until everything is over and everyone is gone.

Shepherd keeps records of these events and warns staff of daily and future building activities at the beginning of each day.

Many of the details of working as a custodian are new to Gutierrez. As a high school student, she never realized the tedious tasks janitors performed each night.

“Even when I was in high school, I think about it and I never really thought about what custodians did. And we used to think, ‘Well, that’s what they get paid for.’ You don’t think about them,” Gutierrez said. “I was really inconsiderate when I was young — not thinking about all that and everything. Now that I do that, it’s like, I’ve learned so much things that, you know, the cleaning part of a school, which things you don’t think about when you’re in high school.”

Shepherd has experienced a similar lack of appreciation for his job. While sweeping the commons area last Valentine’s Day, Shepherd noticed kids throwing M&Ms at each other, even as he swept the floor in front of them. He could not tell the football players to stop because he did not have the authority, but when he told the coach, the coach said he was “going to make them run hard today.”

“Only some kids … some of these kids will bend over, and [say,] ‘Let me get that for you, sir,’ pick up for you,” Shepherd said. “I’ve seen kids stack my chairs, and I’ve asked them to do nothing. Not all, just a handful that really … care.”

Night shift custodian Adam Rowe experienced no such respect. This month he became a “restroom specialist” on one side of the building.

His job was to fill dispensers, clean fixtures, clean water fountains in hallways and locker rooms and wipe graffiti each night off the restroom stalls, with another “thanks” at the end.

Students “drained the water out where you couldn’t flush the toilet. Stuff like that, man. [It’s] stuff like that that we got to deal with everyday. It’s nasty, man. These kids. They come here … all the [gra]ffiti. That’s ridiculous, man. I don’t know if it comes out of the school budget, but we need some new bathroom stalls, man. That’s my opinion,” Rowe said. “These kids at Rock Bridge High School, they can do anything and the custodians will [clean] it. No respect.”

Though Gutierrez and Shepherd do not share the same views, Rowe noted one of his other jobs, one that sometimes puts him in campus frat houses, is far worse.

Rowe works three jobs. He spends eight hours every weekday as a night shift custodian, six hours on weekdays at University of Missouri — Columbia Campus Facilities and eight hours on weekends as a line cook at the Country Club of Missouri, totaling 86 hours a week.

Gutierrez used to work a similarly difficult load when she started custodial duties in the district. Her other job was at a factory that built emergency brakes for cars. She was working full time there and part time at RBHS, but her other job required her to stay overtime. She woke up at 3 a.m. to begin work at 5 a.m.

Her eight hours should have ended at 1:30 p.m., but overtime kept her until 3 p.m. By 6 p.m. she needed to report to her then-part time custodial duties, and she wouldn’t leave until 11:30 p.m.

“By the time you get home, your body doesn’t wind down right away. So I’d end up going to sleep around 1:30,” Gutierrez said. “I did that for three months, and then I ended up in the hospital. Didn’t have enough sleep. My body didn’t rest enough. So I just stopped with that. I just have one job and that’s it. I’ll get any overtime you could give me, but I will not work two jobs.”

Though Gutierrez would like to return to school and finish her education to prove to her kids that she could also make it, she enjoys the environment at RBHS.

“I like being in a positive environment, and that’s where I have been, and I really do love it here because I have no problems,” Gutierrez said. “You know, the custodians, the rest of the crew, they’re very respectful towards me even though at the time I was the only female. They don’t really treat me as a female, they treat me like one of the guys.”

By Avantika Khatri