Not just a janitor

Custodian at Quarterfield Elementary is a friend, mentor

December 14, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,

The students at Quarterfield Elementary School know him as Mr. Lee, the custodian who keeps their school in tip-top shape. But his kindness to them - say, buying a lactose-intolerant student without any money a juice drink when all her free lunch would afford her was milk - and his gentle nudging to pick up their trash or pay attention to their teachers is how Cain Lee has won them over.

When he walks down the hall, carrying a box of equipment or pushing a broom, the students shout his name. They ask for hugs and invite him to sit at their lunch tables. Some children tell him, "I love you," and he tells them he loves them, too.

Cain Lee has been working as a custodian for Anne Arundel County schools for more than four decades, spending the past 24 years at the 450-student elementary school in Severn. To his surprise and delight, the school department named him Employee of the Month for December.

Like most of the recipients of that award, Lee, 60, was tricked into going to the school board meeting in Annapolis. He had been told by his principal that he was there for a presentation on school security.

"Besides keeping his school tidy and clean, he takes charge of duties that help Quarterfield run smoothly each and every school day," said Eugene Peterson, a school board member, at the start of the packed board meeting.

"Whether it is helping staff members charge batteries, change tires or bring loads of equipment in and out of the building, Mr. Lee stands ready and willing to get the job done - well and expeditiously. ... But Cain Lee is more than a building manager who achieves excellence," Peterson said. "Mr. Lee is a mentor to the students at Quarterfield. He can be often be found at breakfast or lunch sitting with the students and chatting with them about behavior - always giving 'high-fives' for a job well done."

When Peterson announced his name, Lee began to cry.

"I was just happy," Lee recalled in an afternoon chat in the teachers' lounge at Quarterfield. "You hear and see a lot of your co-workers around here get the same thing, and you wanted to know what it felt like, your 15 minutes of fame. It felt good."

A week after he graduated in 1965 from a vocational high school in Baltimore, he started work as a custodian in Anne Arundel County.

He never really liked school, he said, but his parents made sure he attended and did well.

He remembers taking a course on janitorial service, but it was an older sister who worked for the Anne Arundel County school department that encouraged him to get a job with the school system.

And he chuckles when he thinks about the irony of a kid, uninspired by learning, ending up working at schools for 42 years and counting.

"I never thought I'd make my living in a school," he said. "But look at me."

The job of a janitor hasn't changed much since 1965. There's the everyday sweeping, mopping, emptying the trash and cleaning up the occasional accident. He uses a wooden-handled broom with a long perpendicular row of bristles to sweep the floor, familiar to any former public school student. (The broom even bears a sticker, "Made in the U.S.A.") And the same old-fashioned mop with its long tentacles. No fancy detachable sponges here.

Like most industry, computers have invaded a bit, though. The school's boiler and exhaust fans are all monitored by computers now.

Years past, custodians had to stop by their school on weekends to make sure everything was working properly, a task Lee doesn't miss. But he has largely veered away from using new technology for other tasks, preferring to log his work by pen, rather than using a computer.

"I still do mine by paper," Lee said.

In his time at Quarterfield, and before that at Brooklyn Park Elementary and a few other schools, he has always enjoyed the job, he said, adding that it has afforded him a good living.

He and his wife own the home where they live in Baltimore and, over the years, he has taken trips to Las Vegas and been on several cruises.

From time to time, Lee takes on other roles. He has caught a few dogs that apparently followed their young owners to school. He once had to catch a stray cat that took up residence in a classroom overnight. And when the occasional field mouse ventures in through the vents, he calls pest control.

Principal Jennifer A. Green, who began at Quarterfield almost one year ago, credits Lee with easing her transition.

"He is definitely so very deserving," Green said. "He's taught me about the culture here. ... He gives me encouragement. I truly love him. He is truly a wonderful, wonderful human being.

"He's one of the essential employees here at Quarterfield."

Most mornings for Lee begin when he gets up about 4:30 a.m. He has a cup of coffee and puts on the television news to check the weather and see if there are any traffic tie-ups. Then he hits the road to make it to the school's Severn campus by 6 a.m.

He does a security check first, making sure there was no overnight vandalism or other problems. Then he sets up for breakfast.

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