How a Janitor Broke My Heart

Watching my three daughters morph from “The Tiny’s” into dynamic young women, I am convinced that infants emerge from the womb with certain passions, traits and mindsets firmly implanted in their DNA. One doesn’t necessarily recognize these traits right away, but later, after a decade or so of alligator-wrestling them, a tired mother soon realizes her child has actually been this unique persona since the cord was clipped. No amount of BabyWise-ing, Ferberizing, bedsharing, breastfeeding, playdate organizing, flashcarding or Montessori Method-ing would have altered anything.

Other mindsets and passions might take longer to reveal themselves, remaining dormant in early childhood, only to be “activated” at a later date.

Before we jump into this, I’d like readers to promise they will not judge my parents. Frank and Midge Terry are both deceased, and thus cannot defend themselves. I’m tossing two good parents into some rough waters here, but only to set the stage for delicate decisions made in my head alone.

This story details a defining moment in my young life. A moment I never realized was defining until this very day. “With age comes wisdom,” so I guess this newfound clarity officially means I’m growing old, because I clearly see how so many wonky puzzle pieces of my life all fit together now.

So, let’s step into the Time Machine.

Here I am. An only child, ten years old, 1975. Not that long after the Civil Rights movement in America, but, had you asked me then what the Civil Rights movement was, I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea. I was more into Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pop Tarts, Monopoly and Gilligan’s Island. I’m in the fifth grade at St. Mark’s Day School, an upper-crust, Episcopal elementary school in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s important to note, though, that my family was not wealthy.

My parents were older than average. My Dad would have been around 65 and my Mom around 52 at the time this story takes place. Older parents are all the rage now, but it was definitely not a “thing” back when I was growing up. Frank Terry, often mistaken for my grandfather, was a super smart man. But his impulsiveness, combined with a divisive relationship with his own father, led him to drop out of high school to join the Navy at age 17. The story of his 30-year Naval career could grow wings right now and carry this post off in a completely different direction, so I will try to stay on topic. The takeaway you need for now is that hard work and commitment put my Dad in frequent personal contact with one of the most revered Democratic presidents our country has ever known, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

My father was a gifted shorthand secretary and stenographer, and FDR specifically requested my father be on duty, to take copious notes, at major historical events such as the Atlantic Charter and Casablanca Conferences. One cannot be immersed in such greatness of thought and leadership and not absorb some by osmosis. So I absolutely cannot call my father a racist, but unfortunately I can’t classify exactly what he was. Dad died when I was 19, and I regret I never made an effort to explore his opinions on racial divide.

In the Navy my Dad completed his high school equivalency. However, after retiring from service after 30 years, he immediately joined the workforce as a professional fundraiser rather than pursuing a college degree, perhaps his biggest regret. As a result, it was imperative that I, his daughter, unexpectedly conceived and born to him at age 55, be given a quality education with obvious opportunity and encouragement to attend college. It’s a familiar parental refrain:  “I want you to have all the things I didn’t.”

Plus, he was a devout Episcopalian.

I assume that’s why I ended up in the white bread basket at St. Mark’s.  I hope. I hope. I hope. Because it kills me to think my parents didn’t want me attending public school in Shreveport because it meant having African American classmates.

My Mom hailed from a close-knit but financially strapped, Depression-era family in Stuart, Nebraska. College was never an option for her or any of her four siblings. Each Perry child left Stuart to seek employment in Omaha as soon as they completed high school. My Mom had a very impressive career building the backbone of the personnel department at Mutual of Omaha, and later moved on to being an office supervisor for various fundraising campaigns, where she ended up meeting my dad. She was Hollywood beautiful, yet worked and remained unmarried until her 40’s, very much a Mary Tyler Moore type.

I cringe to suspect her of racism. I mean, it’s not like either of them supported the KKK or used racial slurs or vented at the television news during controversial stories. Whatever they felt was very, very subtle. So subtle that I struggle to define it today.

There’s the good version. And the darker version. I can feel the pull toward the light. But the shade is real also.

I feel compelled to share how my mother was regularly involved with charity work. She and my Grandmother Perry once spent weeks making dozens of the absolute cutest hand puppets you ever laid eyes on to donate to Children’s Hospital. I would like to write that I was a good sport about donating them; but instead, sick kids be damned, I recall being heartbroken we couldn’t keep those puppets, going so far as to hide a few of them under my mattress. Mom continually instilled in me the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone to help others in need. But she had trouble stepping out of that comfort zone in matters of race.

Mom fully supported my father’s desire to financially over reach and send me to private school. I suspect my mother’s racial discomfort stemmed more from a place of fear of the unknown. I imagine one had to look far and wide to find an African American in the tiny rural town of Stuart. I’m not saying this makes it okay, I’m only attempting to pinpoint where she fit on the spectrum. I’m certain she, like my father, would never have approved of abuse, violence or withholding the right to vote—big things like that, but there was a pervasive distrust of dark skin that could not be denied.

So back to 1975. At the time, attending St. Mark’s Day School was, to me, just what any kid did. We wrote reports. Did our homework, lots of homework. Planned sleepovers. Enjoyed television. My class was comprised entirely of Caucasian children and I honestly never thought twice about the lack of any diversity. I was an oblivious mini-citizen of a segregationist’s utopia. There were no financial scholarships offered to minority students to provide some rainbow in the student population back in 1975. Parochial school was proudly billed as a “religious education,” but really more of a convenient social mechanism to avoid mixing up the races.

The only time in a school day we caught a glimpse of black skin was if we happened to spot one of the janitors. There was Luther, an efficient, older gentleman who had worked at St. Mark’s Church and Day School literally forever, and there was David, a younger fellow who was probably in his early 20’s.

How do I clearly recall these janitors names after all these years, you might wonder?

I shrink from the very distinct memories of their humiliating uniforms. Not that uniforms themselves are degrading, but I shudder at the recollection of how their first names only were embroidered on a patch sewn to their right breast pocket. Luther. David. White society’s way of subtly saying, “Yes, we know these Negroes and they work here.” And most likely, “If they disrespect you, you can report them by name.”

Nobody else— teachers, secretaries, headmaster—were required to wear a name patch anywhere on their person, let alone a uniform.

David had an unassuming, gentle soul. And, this didn’t resonate at the time, but as I dust off my memory of him today, I realize he was also quite handsome. His demeanor was the polar opposite of “The Smash” on Friday Night Lights. Soft-spoken, tall and lanky, David had a warm smile, a cool afro and a protective older brother sort of attitude.

My classmates and I became aware of David when he was assigned to monitor a large plastic trashcan outside of the lunchroom.

The school required that all students eat the hot lunch prepared on site. I would not classify my childhood self as a “picky eater,” but I do recall those lunches being disgusting, with the one exception of instant whipped potato-like food which we all found delicious, and somehow managed to nutritionally sustain us during a long afternoon of arithmetic. The memory of the rubbery cold ham slices with the pervasive veins of white fat that ran like a roadmap through the slab of gristly meat could have easily turned me into a vegetarian, if that had been a “thing.” To be clear, it most assuredly wasn’t a “thing,” and neither was gluten-free or respect for any sort of food allergy. My tyrannical third grade teacher would have quickly labeled any type of dietary preference “Mickey Mouse,” which I now realize was her old-school-educator way of saying “bullshit.”

The lack of appealing, child-friendly food was basically the reason David was assigned to monitor the trashcan, and assist the students with scraping our generally untouched plates as we exited the lunch room. Since so much uneaten food remained on the plates, when the students attempted to stack their dishes themselves at the end of every meal, slimy remains were ending up on the slick linoleum floors.

An “unfortunate incident” occurred one day when a particularly large glob of some hazardous food item on the floor threatened our safety.  A class of first graders, led by a petite but authoritative elderly teacher, marched solemnly, chain-gang style, from the cafeteria to the lunch room, plates piled high with hot food soon to be creatively swirled around and crafted to look as if nibbled.  From my fifth grade table, I had a bird’s eye view as the mishap unfolded.

Mrs. Faye, leading her charge, had turned her head to glance behind her, to bark severe orders to her students to “Pay attention now and listen to me for once and just you watch out for this mess smack dab in front of you on the floor and don’t tramp through it like a bunch of lollygagg—” when suddenly— WHOOSH! — WHAM!

Her black, classic orthopedic, mass-produced old-lady shoe, identical to my grandmother’s, hit that greasy smear of unclassifiable muck and she instantly face planted. Robert Bacon, John Hoffman (RIP) and I, all pie-eyed witnesses, crammed rolls in our mouths and nearly suffocated trying to stifle our giggles. Yes, it sounds perverted how we would find an aging teacher’s most humiliating moment wildly hilarious, but if you knew Robert Bacon and John Hoffman, you would understand. I could barely make eye contact with either of these two deliciously mischievious boys without erupting in clandestine laughter at any time in a given day.

Academically demanding, and with far too heavy a concentration of sheltered, coddled Caucasians, the environment at St. Mark’s existed on a high level of tension.  Our Greek Orthodox fifth grade teacher was beautiful, hip and fashionable. She and I bonded over our mutual adoration of the actor Michael Landon. Like most youthful teachers of the day, she disavowed the old school methods of corporal punishment; but, supported the general lunchroom mandate applicable to the entire school:  monkey business was not to be tolerated. We were allowed to converse quietly with one another while eating, but silliness, goofing off and anything that resembled childish glee was frowned upon and immediately squashed. We were given the choice to either abide by these rules, or we would not be allowed to talk at all. In a pathetic attempt to justify why we shook with laughter at the sight of a boxy little elder taking a hard spill, I can say only that a tense environment causes anxiety, and pent up anxiety can cause anyone to make some bad decisions. Laughter is just the body’s way of coping.

Luther’s reaction was much more compassionate. He was there in an instant, helping the teacher up, likely trying not to actually touch her in case this offended her, likely praying that he would not be blamed for the accident, offering her a clean dish towel to wipe the food from her clothes, unclear from his facial expressions if he felt the crabby little white Napoleon maybe got what she deserved. I feel certain that in order to have not only survived, but thrived in his role as a popular, beloved African American maintenance man at St. Mark’s for as long as he had, his composure and acting skills were very likely Oscar-worthy.

At any rate, from that day on the formerly snappish Mrs. Faye seemed almost humbled, and Luther’s lieutenant, David, was stationed at the trashcan, dutifully scraping the contents of our plates.

I wasn’t the first to strike up a conversation with David. This honor goes to one of my bolder classmates, and, sadly, the details are fuzzy as to which friend actually started it. If I had to guess, I would probably choose Susan Hardtner. She lived in a sprawling Southern mansion that made Tara look shabby. We all followed her lead like a bunch of lemmings. I wasn’t the Alpha Dog, so as soon as it became cool to “Say Hi to David” every day when we dumped our plate, I was on board.

Soon, my group of girlfriends was going out of our way to say “Hi David” every time we saw him around school. One afternoon after school, we found David working in a classroom emptying the wastebaskets. A bunch of us entered the room in preparation for a Girl Scout meeting, and, since after-school time allowed more freedom, we eagerly bombarded him with numerous questions.  We asked David his last name, we learned it was Hayes, and found out he had a baby boy. He was through and through a nice guy. He wasn’t the least bit inappropriate. No one got any weird  Michael Jackson-y Jesus Juice vibes.

Except my mother.

I can’t remember how she even came to know about David. It’s funny how so many details of this story are crystal clear— I mean, I can still hear the thud of Mrs. Faye’s locomotive-like upper body hitting the linoleum and feel the pressure of my eardrums practically bursting as I suppressed my laughter, but I cannot remember how my mother learned about our David Hayes Fan Club. But she did not approve of it one bit. I was ordered not to talk to David anymore.

“Why? That’s so dumb,” I likely responded. I might have been an only child, but since I was old enough to remember, I had given my poor aging parents three kids worth of pushback. But this is one of the times I truly felt it was justified.

“Because. You just never know.” That was the best she could produce. “What business does a janitor have talking to a bunch of little girls?” Mom added.

She didn’t get it. It was the other way around. We talked to him. David didn’t initiate anything. The tag line “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” hadn’t been created yet, but I’m pretty sure I adopted a similar attitude, “What happens at school, stays at school.” I learned to be more secretive. And I had no tattletale siblings to rat me out. The thought of my mother making a big deal out of this mortified me, but I wasn’t going to stop talking to David. No way.

I will say though, in defense of Mama Bears everywhere, she did not have the arsenal of literature and advice available to her then, as we do today, to talk to me productively about this. Nor could she send any WTF e-mails to her other fifth-grade mom-friends and garner opinions or any strength in numbers. In her isolated mind it could have been David or it could have been a man “In a VAN down by the RIVER” (RIP Chris Farley). Mom had a bad case of Stranger Danger Phobia. But, sadly, it did not help the situation that David was black.

So the weeks go by, my Mother occasionally makes failed attempts to play Sherlock Holmes and I am deliberately elusive to avoid any type of scene. My father is more or less removed from the battle, as dads in general were not as involved in day-to-day issues like they are today, at least in my family of origin.

One Saturday, just as I was beginning to think this whole drama was beginning to die down, I’m eating breakfast at the kitchen table. My mother approaches and plops a quartered section of the newspaper down in front of me. She wears her bathrobe and an odd look on her face. I sense that this isn’t going to be good.

“I want you to read this,” she says flatly, and walks away.

I glance down at the headline. It’s not a large, front page screamer. It’s a teeny tiny two-paragraph article buried at the bottom of the page in a random, obscure section of The Shreveport Times.

Man Arrested for Burglary
David Hayes, 23, of Shreveport… 

Disbelief quickly turned to anger.

Oh, and was I furious. Furious at her for finding this, buried in the newspaper, in a section that nobody bothers to read. Furious at her attempts to bolster her side of the debate, that David was a bad man. Furious that I was not winning this battle.

First of all, I rationalized, this probably wasn’t even HIM. And secondly…secondly…well, there was no secondly. I was convinced she had the wrong person. But she seemed almost smug about her discovery, and that made my head want to explode with pre-adolescent rage.

St. Mark’s was my school and also our church. The next morning, Sunday, I was dropped off at church an hour early, as was our usual routine, for choir practice. The halls were unusually quiet that morning. The vesting rooms for the youth choir were located in the basement, and as I approached, I could hear the low conversational tones of two male voices.

The office of the head custodian, who was white, and I don’t recall his name because I don’t think he was required to wear a name patch, was nearby the vesting rooms. The door was closed, but because the top half was opaque glass, I could hear two distinct voices. My heart began to pound. I knew who was behind that door.

Alone and unobserved, I crept up to the custodian’s closed door and eavesdropped. David was being interrogated. I could hear the voice of the head custodian, inquiring about David’s recent arrest. Then I could hear David, attempting to explain, his quiet voice respectfully pleading with his supervisor to let him keep his job. That the burglary was a stupid mistake, his friends had put him up to it, he had learned his lesson, he would do anything to keep his job. His mother was so disappointed. He was sorry. He was sorry. He was pleading. He was sorry.

You apologize. You grovel. I expected that he should be forgiven and maybe handed a trivial punishment. In a little white girl’s world, this is what I knew to be true.

“Look, David, I don’t want to do this,” the head custodian said. “I know you’re a good man. But we can’t have anyone on staff with an arrest record.”

“Please, please, don’t fire me, sir,” David begged.

This back and forth continued for a few more agonizing minutes. I finally heard a chair scrape the floor as his boss pushed back to end the interaction. A Hollywood ending would have had me barging into the custodian’s office and, with a child’s ingenuous passion that encapsulates what’s still good in the world, successfully defending David. Instead, I scurried away like a cockroach, tears streaming down my cheeks.

I wanted to hug David. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was that he lost his job. And how it wasn’t fair that they wouldn’t give him a second chance. I wished he hadn’t committed a crime, but I remained staunchly convinced he wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t a bad person, he had merely made a foolish, youthful mistake. We had all made mistakes. But, as a black man, this mistake would have swift and severe consequences.

I bolted to the restroom in the back of the vesting room and had a private, snot-globbed ugly cry, choking on sobs of rage and injustice.

The American poet Mary Oliver best described the transformation of ten-year-old me that day, in one of her most beloved quotes from New and Selected Poems, Volume 2

“I tell you this
to break your heart
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”

My classmates and I all agreed David had gotten a raw deal. We mourned his loss in the lunch room and around school. Were we just naive little white kids, or did our generation see the world through a different, less fearful lens than our parents?

I remained twelve more years in Shreveport, where racial divides continued to exist long after they should. It is a personal regret that I did not make many African American friends. If I had a do-over, that is something I would have changed.

In many ways I strive to emulate my mother, but not in her innate fear of minorities.

For all the distortion of reality that attending an elite, exclusively white private school provided, I think it’s rather amusing and fortuitous that it unintentionally awakened in me, and some of my former classmates, the seeds of passionate liberalism. As part of the curriculum, we attended daily chapel. And despite the Episcopal liturgy’s gender bias— always calling God a King and a Lord and a He and a Him — and all the obfuscating language — all the Thee’s and Thou’s and Dosts and adding eth to the end of all the verbs —I somehow managed to absorb that the meatiest and most important idea we can cram in our lifeskills takeout container is simply this: God wants us to love each other, and treat each other with respect and kindness.

That quality education my parents insisted I receive taught me some key American history:  African slaves were grossly mistreated. Abraham Lincoln was a hero and fought hard to make the principle “All men are created equal” the bedrock of our liberties. I constantly goofed off, and in the classroom, my mind wandered all over the place like a housefly. I ended up leaving St. Mark’s school after that fifth grade year, because academically it was kicking my butt. But I did manage to leave that place with valuable planks in my liberal foundation. I’ll never be sure if that’s what my parents were paying tuition for or not— I’m assuming not— but that’s what they got.

Whatever mindsets and tendencies I was born with, nestled deep and comfortably sleeping in my DNA, were activated that year, several key neurons made a howdy-do that had not been bridged before. I realized how our humanity transcends all barriers. However, only the 52-year-old me can finally put into words what the 10-year-old me discovered.

I learned all of this from observing the heartbreaking plight of my favorite janitor. And a more recent observation:  I may have strong opinions, but do I really DO anything to improve our racial divides? I do not. But my memory of David Hayes will inspire me to do a better job.

David Hayes, where ever you are today,  I hope, like a Phoenix, you rose from the ashes of your mistake and went on to have a satisfying, purposeful, rewarding life. I regret that you lost your job at St. Mark’s so long ago, but I console myself now by imagining perhaps that was exactly what needed to happen for you to become the greater person you were intended to be. Thank you for teaching me, without even trying to teach me, that interracial friendships are like any other friendships, with nothing to fear and nothing to guard against.

Thank you, David Hayes, for helping me to define who I was meant to be. You opened up the eyes, and cracked open the heart of a sheltered white kid. I barely knew you. But through you, I am beginning to figure out so very much.

And Mom and Dad, why is it that excavating our differences makes me miss you even more?

 

St Marks.jpeg

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