Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Face of the American Worker: In praise of my building’s custodian

The Face of the American Worker:
In praise of my building’s custodian

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle, on the harvest plain
While all around him waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
Go work today.

A troubling context

Yesterday was Labor Day. For most Americans it was a holiday. For some, it was an opportunity to make time and a half working on a national holiday. For others, it signals the end of summer with its beach vacations and the beginning of Fall and back to school.  It is also historically the height of hurricane season in the northern hemisphere.

I find it sad that among the things that Labor Day represents to the average American, what is missing from that list is the labor it was designed to celebrate. Labor Day was created to be a day where the hard work of the average Joe and Mary was recognized and appreciated. This year’s Labor Day occurs amidst a downward spiral of anti-labor sentiment not seen in America for a very long time. It has become fashionable to pillory unions today, to demonize workers and to loot the pensions of retired workers even as corporate executives, wealthy stock holders and the irresponsible citizens whom workers serve become ever wealthier off their often poorly compensated labor.

There is a word to describe this relationship: exploitative.

I long ago recognized that my life was made possible by the hard work of a lot of people I would never know. I learned from my short stint in the fields of Central Florida’s truck farms that my daily bread only came to me via the hard work of farm workers, many of them denied the living wage their tireless efforts deserved and subjected to work conditions which would ultimately shorten their lives. I learned from my short stint selling shoes in a now-defunct big box store (J.M. Fields) that consumerism fostered a contempt for the very workers whose labor made it possible to buy the cheap goods that consumerism has hoodwinked us into believing we need to make us happy.

Lessons from unheralded teachers

One of the wisest lessons I learned in my internship prior to beginning teaching public schools some 40 years ago was that there were three groups of workers you wanted to keep on your side. They included the clerical staff in the office, the cooks and servers in the cafeteria and the custodial staff in your hallway. It was good advice that proved invaluable when I began teaching. But it was also an invitation for me to see workers as individuals, real human beings with real lives, families and dreams, not simply caricatures expressed in reductionist, functionalist terms.

There are no essential waitresses, secretaries, garbage men or plumbers in this world. There are simply human beings who work in hourly jobs to make their humble livings. Without them our society would collapse within hours.

A major reason I ride the city bus system to work is because I am inevitably surrounded by people whose life circumstances are different from my own. Call it a rolling Margaret Mead experience if you like. I sit among workers, some of them a bit whiffy after long days working outside in construction, day laborers carrying rented tools back to the hiring office to insure they get all of the meager paycheck coming to them, human advertisements who have traded the giant signs they twirl on highway shoulders in the sun all day for 8 ounce beers in brown paper bags from which they not so surreptitiously sip on the ride home.  

On the bus I  quietly work my crossword puzzles or simply gaze out the windows. Most of all, I listen. And I learn a lot about people whose lives are very different from my own. On the bus, it is the working class headed home after a long day of work who are the teachers and the professional middle class academic who is the student.

A surprise revelation

Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share;
To young and old the Gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

This past week I was stopped dead in my tracks by the revelations of one of my students. This woman had been in my class two years ago and suddenly disappeared. This is not terribly unusual among undergraduates who are living on their own for the first time and often find themselves blindsided by events they never saw coming. I sent her an email after a couple of weeks had passed to remind her that the engagement portion of the grade could not be met by missing class.

A couple of days later I received a response. The student had been advised by her doctor to remain in bed during what proved to be a high risk pregnancy. She ultimately was required to drop all her courses, sending me a note thanking me for my concern and promising to return to school once the pregnancy was completed.

Of course I hear promises like this all the time, many of which are never kept. The fact this student actually lived into her promise to return to school is somewhat unusual. She picked back up where she had left off in the humanities program sequence two years later bearing pictures of her now two year old healthy child. But it was her revelation in a break between classes last week that stopped me in my tracks.

I teach two classes back to back in a rather foul old barely functional classroom on the top floor of the original Engineering building, a site a colleague lovingly dubbed “the armpit.” There is a ten minute break between the classes. My student is taking both classes from me and often brings her supper with her to class and gobbles it down in the ten minutes between classes.

Last week one of her classmates remarked on how good her grilled chicken salad smelled and how she was making everyone hungry. “I’m sorry,” she said “but I have to eat my supper now.” I asked her if she was headed for work after the class. “I work until midnight,” she replied. Where? She smiled, “I clean the building your office is in,” adding, “then I go home to be Mom to a two year old.”

My two classes are the only two classes this student is taking because the university only pays for two classes a semester for its employees. She and her husband switch off child raising duties and work schedules to keep the lights on and the food on the table. In the middle of all that, this student manages to study and produce high quality work in her two classes.

“I admire you”

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here;
Though feeble agents, may we all fulfill
God's righteous will.

This is the face of American labor that we who benefit from their labor so often and so quickly forget. This is the human being whose labor makes our lives of privilege possible. I can barely keep my own house respectably clean. I can only imagine trying to keep the building where I work clean in addition to teaching and attending to the ever growing list of non-teaching duties imposed upon me by the university.

I hope I did not embarrass this woman when I stammered, “Wow. I admire you.” It was an honest response to the revelations of an unusual student. She evidences no sign of the entitlement that too often afflicts so many of her classmates. She cheerfully leaves my class to go work an eight hour late night shift in custodial work that many of us would quickly pronounce as beneath our dignity. And she comes to class prepared, somehow managing to juggle her duties as mom to a toddler and responsible student in the humanities program with aplomb.

She is one of the many faces of American workers today. And while I did not take a lot of time yesterday amidst my own recreational activities to reflect on my gratitude to them, their day should not pass without some kind of recognition. And so to this hard working young woman and the millions like her across America on this day after Labor Day, I say “Thank you for all you do. And I pray that I and my fellow Americans will never take you or your labor for granted or fail to respect you as our fellow citizens.”

Thank you, all of you. And Happy Labor Day.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows oer our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
Well done, well done!

(Hymn 541, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982. Lyrics, Jane Bothwick,
Thoughts for Thoughtful Hours. Edinburgh, Scotland. 1859)

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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