Quiet strength

Like jacks of all trades, custodians play many roles to support school community


Greenwich Time
January 9, 2005

By Vesna Jaksic

They scrub toilets, fix desks and clean up all kinds of messes, but the workday of local school custodians also includes tasks that are not in any job description.

The town’s 76 custodians are the acrobats who climb roofs to fetch soccer balls and the nurturing mothers who give teary-eyed teenagers dating advice.

They are the craftsmen who fix broken watches and the safekeepers who retrieve children’s lost jewelry. With hundreds of children as their clientele, these men and women are also the witnesses to the lives of town youth, having seen a share of their failures and successes.

Around 6:30 a.m. at Western Middle School, Head Custodian Paul Smart lets a young girl in the front office each day so she can stay warm after her parents drop her off before school officially opens. The Stratford resident has also been known to open lockers when they get stuck and recover and fix many belongings for the middle-schoolers.

“They’ll throw out their retainers with their lunches so I’ll dig through the dumpster,” said Smart, 41, a Western graduate. “I’ve had broken shoes, I’ve fixed glasses, put pins back in their watches.”

Throughout the town’s 16 public schools last week, schools quieted down during the holidays. Classrooms typically jammed with students were empty. Hallways normally filled with young voices echoed with each footstep. Office telephones stopped ringing.

Students and teachers were on vacation, but town school buildings are open year-round. For the Greenwich Public Schools’ custodians, school vacations are among the busiest times of the year as this is when they do a lot of heavy-duty work.

But even without that, somebody has to check the boilers to make sure schools stay warm, ensure doors are locked to keep the buildings safe and clean the bathrooms to maintain a healthy environment for the youngsters.

“Nobody realizes that sometimes we’re here till 1 o’clock in the morning,” said John Frangione, 50, of Riverside, operations manager at Greenwich High School, which has 26 custodians and three maintenance workers. “We have to make sure the school is comfortable and safe for when the students and teachers come in. Nobody sees the behind-the-lines. There are nights we don’t sleep to keep the building from freezing.”

Whether cleaning floors at one of the middle schools takes up most of their time or collecting garbage in the high school’s Student Center is their main task, many custodians said working with children makes their jobs easier and many are on first-name basis with them.

Some get Christmas cards and cookies for the holidays and thank-you letters for helping find students’ coats, gloves, backpacks, watches, earrings and cell phones.

Many local custodians worked in various trades before getting to their current jobs. With annual salaries ranging from about $36,000 to $49,000, some also work part-time jobs after their shifts, which range from 5:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. Many work in the same schools they attended as students.

“I know a lot of the kids that go here, because I live in this neighborhood,” said Byram resident Keith Bishop, 40, who works at Western, which he graduated from in 1979. “I’ve seen them grow up.”

Bishop will have two nieces at the school in two years. Some of the teachers who taught while he was a student are still around.

Raymond Del Valle said he has gotten to know many high school students while working there for more than 20 years. Some have come to work for him at a Round Hill gas station where he works part-time in the afternoons doing odd jobs. His daughter works as an aide with the school’s special education children so he has also befriended many of them.

“They really get to know you when they see you,” said Del Valle, 48. “They’re always really friendly kids and I’m pretty close to them.”

Since 1993, the father of three grown daughters has been rising at 4 a.m. to get from his Wilton home to the school by 5:20 a.m. He starts his day by punching codes into five alarm pads to deactivate the security system, unlocking about 50 doors and flicking dozens of light switches.

The school’s only female custodians are among those who work to keep the facility safe and clean as some 4,000 people pass through every day. But as they
stood in the Student Center recently with their mops and buckets ready for action, Paula Meduri and Barbara Young said other things they do also make their jobs satisfying.

They often feel like the students’ mothers and grandmothers, they said, consoling emotional teenage girls.

“They cry over boyfriends like . . .” Young started.
” . . .Crazy!” Meduri added. “We give them motherly advice and say ‘There is no point in crying,’ ” Young  jumped in.
“Most of these girls are so beautiful,” Meduri added.

Meduri, 60, a GHS grad who now lives in Norwalk, has worked with Young, 61, of Greenwich, for a decade. The only peaceful part of their workday is just after 6 a.m., when they have coffee in the Student Center before the “stampede,” a term they use to describe the arrival of some 2,750 students.

At lunch time, the two sometimes “do a little dance” to get the teenagers to clean their tables, Meduri said with a big laugh, shaking her hips with arms at her side to demonstrate.

They have found everything from cell phones to bras and panties in the Student Center. Del Valle said he once returned a bag with $300 cash in it. He has climbed the school’s roof to retrieve Frisbees, hacky sacks and even rockets launched during science classes.

Richie Guaragna, North Street’s head custodian, said he is on the roof as often as three times a week getting children’s soccer balls.
“I like these kids,” he said. “I treat this building as if it was my own house.”

But kids will be kids and few custodians have not seen tears, fights and pranks on their jobs. Guaragna, 48, a muscular man with tattoo-covered arms and two studs piercing his left ear, sometimes plays in the gym with the younger students to cheer them up.

Before joining North Street in April, the Stamford father of three grown sons spent a decade working at the high school. He said he has seen it all – liquor bottles in bathrooms, marijuana pipes in the Student Center, blood spattered on bathroom mirrors.

Years ago, Frangione said he walked into the school to find out someone had broken 36 windows. Del Valle once came to work and saw that all the Student Center furniture had been taken out to a parking lot. Another time, someone had put glue in almost every keyhole, perhaps an unsuccessful attempt to keep him from opening the school.

But having spent time at Western as a student and a custodian, Smart said children are generally better behaved these days.

“I’m glad the kids are not as bad as when I was a student,” he said shortly before getting back to mopping Western’s floors a day before New Year’s Eve, the swooshing sound of his mop the only noise that could be heard at the school.