Who Do We Notice? From Guest Blogger janethegrt

The First Essential Scary Truth


Sometimes secret heroes are the best kind.  Another interesting post from guest blogger janethegrt.




I recall a final exam question in graduate school:  “What is the name of your dormitory custodian?”  The small seminar was called something like “Social Justice” and although it was a not a graded question it was given extra credit status. I found out later our professor actually inquired into respective dorms with the housing office to verify our responses.  It was obviously a calculated “Gotcha!” type of question. Although I was irritated by the transparency of the tactic, I guess it had some effect since I’m writing about it years later. I was also vexed that my failure to engage in a standard social grace – asking someone’s name whom I saw on a daily basis – had cost me five points on my exam grade. 


The next time I saw our custodian I made sure I got his name and spent more than five seconds chatting about the weather. Four weeks later my bike was stolen. I reported it to security but resigned myself that I would probably never see it again. Lo and behold, campus police found my bicycle a week later because our custodian recognized it being ridden around campus by some local kids. Was he an exceptionally observant man who mentally recorded the details of 20 bikes chained to our bike racks? Or had he and I established a simple social relationship that made him a bit more watchful for wayward bright blue bikes? I tend to think it was the latter.


Part of my chagrin stemmed from the fact that I had worked as both a hotel maid and the housekeeper of a college dormitory in my late teens and early twenties. I had been an ‘invisible’ person myself. It made me think about the months I spent as a housekeeper at a private liberal arts college in New England. The main housekeeper, Sally, had two small dormitories she was responsible for. Everyone in our two dorms knew Sally (I was appropriately given junior grade status). The students knew when Sally’s first grandchild was born, that she smoked Marlboro Light 100’s on break, and what football team she rooted for. She knew who had barely passed organic chemistry, who was on probation with the Deans’ Office, and who had made the winning goal in a recent soccer game. When parents came to pick students up at the end of the year, their sons and daughters introduced them to Sally. If somebody got drunk and threw up in the bathroom, he might find himself on the receiving end of a little chat with Sally the next week. On one occasion I saw a burly hockey player request his own mop and bucket to make amends for a particularly messy night.


A few years later the college changed this system and put custodians on team rotations between multiple dormitories. I’m sure there were valid financial and managerial rationales for this. Later I heard that incidents of vandalism, students ‘trashing’ their rooms, or urinating in common areas had sky-rocketed. Had the next generation of students changed dramatically? Were they complete heathens? Unlikely. I think they just lost those familiar, human connections: the people cleaning up their cigarette butts and spilled beer had become invisible. And frankly, I wondered if the custodians stilled cared as much about high or low dusting? About knowing “their” students? After all, they were less accountable to a random, nameless set of kids.  


With the recent anniversary of 9/11, I recalled accounts of people escaping the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed because they were led out by a maintenance worker or custodian. It’s not so surprising given that few others would know corridors, stairwells, and emergency exits like the back of their hand.


We can’t possibly be familiar with all the people we randomly encounter each day. It’s neither realistic nor appropriate to be friendly to everyone.  But you know what? Get to know your local bartender or wait-staff. Say hello to your kid’s bus driver if you can. Be pleasant to the front desk worker at your doctor’s office. Leave a thank-you note to the cleaning man or woman. Ask how your mail carrier’s day went. Find out people’s names and address them respectfully. Consider how you would like to be treated if you were in someone else’s place. It costs nothing and will come back to you tenfold in the long run.













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