In the middle of ninth grade I got to know a janitor at my high school. I won’t reveal his name, but for the purposes of this story I’m going to call him “Tom”. Every night after school, Tom went about his business of cleaning up after hundreds of kids who didn’t give a second thought to leaving garbage everywhere. They cast off papers, food wrappers, even clothes – all for Tom to pick up at some point during his rounds.
Now you probably knew someone like Tom, I think we all did. He was of average height, with a slight paunch from not watching (or not caring) about the food he ate. He had a less than stellar approach to keeping his receding hair in order, but you could tell he tried to cover it with a baseball cap when he wasn’t at work. Tom didn’t smell the best, he always had that American “lunch room” smell, which was this amalgamation of refrigerated water and steamed food, with just a slight hint of bleach. Tom wasn’t a talker either, always going about his work quietly and in the shadows rather than get in any of the students’ way. Tom could and would put up with anything, but that’s for an entirely different reason.
One night as I was getting out of school late thanks to after school detention, I noticed Tom working on a piece of gun that he found stuck to the carpet in one of the upstairs hallways. The faded green carpet, lovingly placed down in the same era when bell bottoms and boots ruled the day, attracted every single saliva covered piece the kids chewed on. Once it made landfall on that old school carpeting it was a nightmare to get out. Tom would use all manner and method to extricate it from becoming another black mark on the face of the school, but it meant doing everything short of cutting the carpet out and trying to replace the piece at times.
Perhaps it was the fact that my mom was waiting outside that made me slow down and ask him how bad it was. Truth be told, I had no desire to face the fiery Greek lady who had to leave work to come and pick up her son who couldn’t manage to follow the rules. Thus I slowed down and took a moment to subconsciously prepare myself to deal with my mother, but also to figure how the heck janitors got gum out of carpets.
Tom was knee deep in this piece when I arrived, and not too keen not getting distracted from the task at hand. At first all I heard back was a low grunt and some muttered words about talking to our Principal. It was clear this was a problem Tom had dealt with before, and furthermore, it was something he didn’t want to be doing, not that I could blame him. I watched him toil away and use all manner of cleaners to remove that damned spot, but he couldn’t break it away from the green carpet.
Beside Tom was his trusty garbage bin, surrounded by an array of brooms and sweepers for his janitorial duties. He also carried with him a collection of spray bottles and cleansers for just such an occasion. Once he was fed up with one cleaner, he moved to another one, and then another one. Different bottles and methods of spraying, until the hallway area began to smell like the aftermath of when people throw up and they put out the orange kitty litter to soak it up.
After a few minutes Tom still isn’t giving me the time of day, he’s far too focused on the problem set in front of him, and I remember looking at the clock thinking my mom was still waiting for me. I readjusted my backpack and prepared to face the music waiting for my in the back of my parent’s Toyota Camry. Suddenly, Tom lets out this half laugh, and digs back into his work with twice as much passion. I peer over his shoulder and see him scraping the last bit of the smashed gum off the carpet. He’s happier in that moment than most people get to be during the course of their day.
When he finally stands back up, he turns to me and says, “I knew I could get that gum out. Just like a door, I needed the right key.”
It didn’t make a lot of sense to me in the moment. I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind to deduce how he got to locks and keys from gum stuck to carpet, but now more than ever I see exactly what he was talking about.
There are going to be situations in life where you may have to try a combination of every solution you know before you get the results you want. It might take far longer than you expect to arrive at your success, or even what you deem successful, but you have to keep trying keys until you find the right one.
People are no different.
I firmly believe that every person is both their own lock, and their own key. We’re a puzzle, gift wrapped on the day of our birth and handed the opportunity to unlock that gift if we can figure out what the key is to doing so. Now not everyone decides to do that, but that doesn’t mean the key isn’t there, lurking just beyond our vision.
Addendum: Next Sunday is Father’s Day. For the last few years I’ve put up the same post about what fathers can teach their sons about how women should be treated. I like the piece and I feel like it still has value, but I won’t be re-running it this year.
This time things will be different.