If you wonder how much of a difference one individual can make, consider this story about a man named Charlie. His life offered a wonderful example of the power of relationships. He passed away ten years ago but he lives on in the hearts of many of the people he touched, both students and teachers. Every few years, I like to pull the story out, dust if off, and delight in the memory of this special man with whom I spent only a few moments of my life.
Charlie made an enormous difference in the lives of literally thousands of young people and hundreds of adults in the high school all three of my children attended. One of the teachers who worked with him shared Charlie’s story in a letter to the editor of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, a few weeks after his death. Otherwise, few outside of the Wayne High School community would have known about this special man, and the quiet but enormous impact he made.
Charlie was a black man working in a high school that was somewhere between ten to fifteen percent black. He did not have an impressive title, did not make a great deal of money, had no formal authority, there were no letters after his name, and he was neither a star athlete nor a celebrity. Charlie’s stature as a powerful positive leader came only from the force of his personality, his dedication to his job, his love of people, and his God-given ability to make people feel important. He was a human being who, out of the pure generosity of a loving heart, accepted responsibility for making his corner of the world a better place.
I first heard about Charlie years ago when my kids were in high school, but it did not make a great impression on me. I just assumed Charlie was one of the kids at school. The first time, and one of the few times I met Charlie, I was working as a substitute teacher in this high school I thought I knew so well. Like other teachers, I was monitoring the hallways during the passing period, standing by the door to my classroom. It had been a rough day and I was reeling from difficult period of a math lab class when this man came up to me.
He was dressed in a suit and tie and it never would have occurred to me he was a custodian until he grabbed a broom from a cart he had left a few feet away and swept up some debris from the floor.
“How is it going, today? Is there anything I can do for you?” He asked. “You just call me if you need something,” he continued and then proceeded to rattle off his name and extension number. He shook my hand and smiled before continuing down the corridor and I watched him, trying to figure out who in the heck he was.
My eyes followed him as he spoke to a couple students he passed. From the smiles on their faces I can only assume he was smiling, also. Moving on, he gave another student a high five, and then stopped to pick up a couple of broken pencils that lay on the floor.
A dozen yards farther down the hallway a young girl had been leaning against the wall, alone. I had noticed her earlier as she had a lonely and forlorn look about her and I suspected she had been crying. As this custodian drew closer, he drifted over to her and then stopped and smiled at her and put his hand on her shoulder.
This made me immediately suspicious because we are told, frequently and pointedly, not to touch the students, especially members of the opposite gender. I could not hear the words that were spoken, but after a few seconds the girl offered up an embarrassed smile, followed seconds later by a laugh. Charlie lingered a moment, in quiet conversation, and then sauntered off, dishing out more high fives to students as he passed. When I looked back the girl was still there, standing in the same spot but she stood a little taller and had a smile on her face. Whatever this janitor had said to her must have been something she had needed to hear.
Later in the day, in the faculty lounge, I asked a teacher about the custodian in the suit and tie. He laughed, and said, “well, that would have been Charlie.” He went on to say, “he’s a very special guy around here and both the kids and staff love him.”
I asked others about him, including my youngest daughter, now a teacher herself. Whoever I asked, just the mention of his name would evoke a smile, and everyone proceeded to tell me pretty much the same story. “He is everybody’s friend and always has a kind word for you,” my daughter explained.
Charlie, God rest his charitable soul, was a beautiful human being and positive leader. He took his job seriously and took pride in keeping things clean for the students and teachers. Even more importantly, he reached out to people to share his positive attitude. He accepted responsibility for making this high school a better place and for making its people feel special and important.
He had a special ability to sense when someone—teacher, student, or substitute —needed a kind word, a high five, or a warm smile and I am certain Charlie never wasted an opportunity to share his gifts. None of these activities could be found in the job description of a school custodian but Charlie made them a part of his daily routine. They were a part of who he was.
This man demonstrated it was not necessary to have a title, formal authority, or even someone’s permission to be a leader and to make a positive difference to the world and its people. All one needs is a belief that people—all people—deserve our best effort and that we can make a difference. While doing what most people would consider an unimportant and mundane job, this man changed the world around him. He did it by reaching out to people with a generous heart, simple acts of kindness, reassuring words, and a genuine desire to make each of them feel special.
Gifts such as this may brighten only a moment in an otherwise stressful day, but we never know how much of a difference we make when we give the best of ourselves with joy and affirmation. It is a lesson from which all can all learn when we wonder if what we do matters. We can choose to believe every job, well done, adds a little beauty to the world and every smile or act of affirmation can make a difference in the life of another human being.
No doubt Charlie believed he had the most important job in the world. By having a relationship with each of them, Charlie made a difference in the lives of twelve hundred students and a hundred members of a school’s faculty and staff, while keeping their school clean for them.
It was the relationships that mattered. Given what we can learn from Charlie, imagine what a teacher can do in his or her classroom by doing the best job of which they are capable and by making every student feel special and important.
Relationships are everything in life and they are everything in teaching.
God bless you, Charlie.