Carroll Wheatley takes care of spilled milk and needy children.
Not that the children at Glen Burnie Park Elementary School are financially needy. But they are children, and to Wheatley, chief custodian,that means they need as much love and attention as he can give them.
"Just being concerned helps a whole lot," he says. "You can look at people and feel their hurt. Many times kids don't think anyone is paying attention to them."
Yesterday, mopping up a small girl's spilled drink at lunchtime, he comforted: "It'll dry. Don't worry. It'sOK."
Another youngster held out a suspicious-looking sandwich: "Mr. Wheatley, you want a bite? It's got mustard!"
At 44, he spends each day amid the cacophony of 450 children calling his name. He inquires about hurt knees. He gently reprimands noise-makers. He finds napkins, fixes boilers, patrols the halls and keeps the plumbing in order.
He helps teachers and staff workers. Says secretary Sharon Thompson, "When we ring for him he never fusses. He never gets upset."
And he sings. A tenor with a gospel group, Wheatley hums his way through the day and sometimes joins the children in performing at school musical events.
Wheatley, a straight, slender man with a trim mustache, says he has one goal. He wants to "steer kids the right way."When a child is called to the principal's office for discipline problems, Wheatley will stop by and offer encouragement to do better, to be better, next time, teachers say.
When parent Judy DeVault's 3-year-old, Brian, visits the school with her, the custodian always has time for him, she says. The toddler's first inquiry is for "Mr. Wheatley," whom Brian also calls, "My bestest buddy!"
Says his mother, "Brian absolutely glows when he sees Mr. Wheatley. He shines. I've never seen Mr. Wheatley brush a kid aside if they want to show him something. You can see he loves the kids as much as they love him."
The custodian gained experience with his own son, Corey, now 22 and a college art student, and from working with youngsters at his church.
But he has learned most from God, he says. "I'm not here just to exist, but for a purpose, to please the Lord," he says. "I act this waybecause of Christ. I'll help any way I can."
Every weekend, Wheatley and his wife Regina travel 90 minutes to his home church on the Eastern Shore, the Union Chapel of Cordstown, a community near Cambridge in Dorchester County. His seven-member gospel group, the Gospel Echoes, has sung together for 20 years and often performed on the church's radio program.
Driving around the state in his black ChevroletBlazer, he sings gospel tunes, so enthusiastically that "people think I'm crazy," he says.
Wheatley has worked at the school for 15 years, starting out as a night custodial worker. He got into the business after the can company for which he worked closed. He had finished two years at Bowie State University when he took a custodial job earning half of his previous paycheck. "You can't say in life what you'renot going to do," he says. "I'm proud and thankful for a job. It puts food on the table for my family."
Not all aspects of his job arepleasant, Wheatley admits. He doesn't particularly enjoy cleaning upafter sick students, but says, "someone needs to do it. Every morning I get up and thank God for allowing me to see that day."
Often, children will ask how he can stand the less pleasant aspects of the custodial job.
"You know when Mr. Wheatley doesn't like his job? Ifa student is doing something he isn't supposed to be doing," he tells them.
Wheatley always stays calm, says school principal Jerry Christian. If a child starts talking back, Wheatley tells them: "I'm not hollerin' at you and there's no need for you to holler at me."
But he's also strict. "The first time a child gets disrespectful with his parents, (the parents) got to stop it then or they'll have big problems," says Wheatley.
Yesterday, a child in a lunch line swore. Says Wheatley, "We don't use that language here. Mr. Wheatley doesn'teven say those words, and I'm older than you!"
A gentle reprimandseems to be enough to make the children behave. When he checks in the boys bathroom for students late to class, they say, "That's Mr. Wheatley! Let's go!"
"They have plenty of respect for me," he says quietly. "And I have plenty of respect for them."
Says the principal, "He's a very unusual man. He's extraordinarily dedicated. He never tells anyone 'no' when they need him. He talks to the students very softly in his manner, and the children respect him highly -- they respect him as much as one of their teachers, really."
Wheatley takes the responsibility seriously.
"I think of 450 kids, the principal,teachers, secretaries -- whatever I say will affect them, make them feel better or worse," he says. "Every day is important."