Summer cleaning frenzy

Marathon: Custodians at an Essex high school scrape, scrub and buff to get the building ready for students' return next month. Cleaning with a vengeance

July 15, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Sliding across soapy floors at Kenwood High School in Essex, chief custodian Max Metheny II makes a mental note: Drink water -- later.

Metheny, a 15-year veteran of mop-up duty at Baltimore County schools, doesn't have time for thirst. Not when it is up to him and 10 custodians to sponge down grimy walls and scrape wads of gum from floors and desks before 1,800 students return Aug. 30.

"Everything has to be scrubbed -- the walls, the floors, the furniture and the blinds," he said, race-walking down corridors cluttered with pails of tile sealant and wax, boxes of trashed asbestos tiles, rows of torn-out lockers, even a portable shower for asbestos emergencies.

Metheny's marathon of tidiness is played out by custodians in schools statewide. For them, summer break heralds three months of nail-chipping, spine-cracking work. Time off? Good luck. Summer is to custodians what April is to tax preparers -- crunch time.

"There is always the worry of, `Are we going to open on time?' " said Kenwood Principal Diane Goldian. "But Max will do whatever he needs to get us ready. With him it's work ethic plus."

For Kenwood custodians, recent summers have brought extra chores. Last summer they began $8 million in renovations and repairs. In 1998, contractors renovated five science labs.

On campus recently, a crew removed asbestos-laden floor tiles. Plumbers installed handicapped-accessible sinks in three student bathrooms. Tile men bent on padded knees to lay grids of sky-blue squares, and contractors prepared to refurbish three empty science labs.

"When they're done, we'll have a brand-new school," said Metheny, 35.

But with large doses of manpower comes mess.

Ceramic dust created by the plumbers' drilling in a bathroom fills the halls and settles on every surface. Tile remnants stack up outside classrooms. Work boots scuff floors. "It's almost like we run after them, broom in hand," Metheny said.

With so much work going on, Metheny has turned traffic conductor. Time with his crew of custodians -- including a shift that works 11 p.m. to 7: 30 a.m. -- gets crunched between meetings with contractors about furniture that must be moved and rooms that need to be unlocked.

At times, Metheny's pace is frantic. On a recent day, sweat had soaked through his polo shirt before 8 a.m. By then, he had swept out three classrooms and made a half-dozen trips up and down two flights of stairs.

Glamorous it's not, but Metheny said he has found career bliss with the county school system. Most of his immediate family has too -- Metheny's wife, a secretary, and two sisters, both custodians, also work for the schools. His father retired after 30 years with the school district as a glazier and painter.

"You learn that you can never say anything bad about anybody working for the school system," Metheny said, grinning. "You never know who's related to who."

On the job at Kenwood, Metheny demands perfection. He works his employees but pushes himself just as hard. While a trio of women scrubs chairs and desks with putty knives, razor blades and abrasive chemical cleaners, Metheny teaches a recent hire how to clean floors using a Speed Scrub 2001 -- a machine large enough to be a John Deere rider lawn mower but without the seat.

"Not too much stripper or it will damage the new tiles," Metheny instructs. "Make sure you scrub that corner good."

Employees appreciate Meth- eny's hands-on approach.

"He would never ask any of us to do anything he wouldn't," said custodian Gloria Kopp. "There's other bosses who would sit in their offices and let you do the dirty work. Not Max."

To celebrate the end of the summer, Metheny, a hunter, brings barbecued rabbit or deer to share with members of his team, including Harvey Latta, Linda Jansen and Bernadette Gardner. They share his pride in glistening floors, dustless blinds and graffiti-free desks.

And on that first day of school, when the corridors clog with teen-agers -- some of whom will dent lockers and scribble on walls -- Metheny plans to shrug it off.

"If they didn't make a mess, we wouldn't have a job," he said.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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