The semi-annual “catered” faculty breakfast time has arrived. The end of the school year brings forth the caring and the compassion of the school system. The faculty breakfast was a time to acknowledge some things from the year, such as, most of the year a few of the teachers have been nursing a Secret Pal gift exchange, school computers have kept track of the teachers that did not miss any days. (The way I calculate the number should be two.) It is also the time for our leader to step up to a microphone and tell us what a wonderful job we’ve done. Thankfully, most of the speech is drowned out by the sounds of the flatware attacking the food from a local Shoney’s restaurant. Platefuls of biscuits, eggs, bacon, sausage, and sweet rolls daring my newly inserted cardiac stents to try and stay open and unblocked. The food is being devoured by two hundred and some odd people wanting to be set free from their 180-day purgatory.
Officially it is a teacher workday. Students are out of school and told to return the next day, but only long enough to receive their report cards. So, my calendar math goes something like this, no school Saturday, Sunday, Monday (Memorial Day), and Tuesday, but the students are expected to return for five minutes on Wednesday, the last day of school. (2 Long + 2 Wait = 4 Summer)
I would like to think that it is a time for reflection on the past school year. I would like to think that, but the only reflection I’m having is how long it will take me to walk to my truck and escape for the summer. There are people I’ll miss seeing everyday during the break, three to be precise. Not one of them will be a teacher. Holding the number one place on my list is Mr. Benjamin, day custodian for the main building. He is 84-years-old and has not missed a workday since I’ve known him.
Five mornings each week, starting at 6:00 A.M., he pushes his cart through the hallways. Cleaning restrooms, sweeping entrance rugs, washing glass on the entrance doorways, but most importantly he dispenses a smile and a “Good Morning” to students and teachers. Each morning after reporting absences and checking my mailbox it’s time to stop for a brief moment and talk with him. Our conversations always begin the same way, with a handshake.
“Good morning sir.”
“Morning young fellow,” he always replies while we shake hands.
“I see you’re learning from me. Hiding out in the open is the best way to hide.” Our stale joke continues each day.
“You must be slipping. I saw you sitting in your truck yesterday afternoon.”
“Well, I have a lot to learn from you because I didn’t see you.” We both laughed while looking up and down the four hallways that intersects where we’re standing.
I’ve come to value Mr. Benjamin. Not for wit and wisdom, but for his presence. Most days I’ll have a newly assigned student to my classroom walk with me when I make my morning rounds. One of our stops will be to talk with Mr. Benjamin.
“Good morning sir.”
“Morning young fellow.” Mr. Benjamin replies.
“This is Mr. Washington. He’s one of my fine new students.” Mr. Benjamin reads the students very well sometimes offering his hand or sometimes just greeting them with a “Hello”.
“You in some kind of trouble young man?”
“Most of the time you’re in trouble to be walking with this man.” Mr. Benjamin never pushed the point with any of my students. He just stated the facts as he saw them. “You hiding out in the open again?”
“Not this time. I’m just getting my mail,” I said.
“That’s the best way to hide. Act like you’re doing something.” He laughed the old man’s laugh. A laugh of knowledge without making it seem he had it.
“I believe I learned this from you.”
“No, you just fine tuned the skill.” He laughed again and gave the young student the once over again. “How you keep those pants up son?” Mr. Washington pulled his sagging pants up on his hips.
“Their okay. It’s just me being me.”
“You’re not being you son. You’re being everyone else.” I noticed the look on the teenagers face and guessed Mr. Benjamin’s words were not lost on him.
The cart started to move toward the next restroom that needed cleaned. Mr. Benjamin looked over his shoulder and said, “See you later young fellow.” I understood he wasn’t talking to me.
“See you around old dude.” The comment came from the student, but with no disrespect.
Mr. Benjamin stopped and turned toward Mr. Washington. For a brief moment he gave a look of a man that understood that someone a fourth of his age might have a chance to be successful. Successful in spite of the world he was growing up in.
“Remember young fellow listen to this man here.” He nodded toward me and turned to roll his cart on to its destination. “Where ever you go in life young fellow be careful, school food is still school food.”