Monday, January 2, 2012

Some stories are sad.

Post 2 on this blog was to be different - it might have been something more like . . . what this blog is, what this blog is not, rules I promise to follow on the blog, etc., etc., etc. This morning I changed my mind. Sometimes you have to do that. This morning I heard that Mr. Eugene died of a heart attack, and I would like to tell you about him.

Mr. Eugene was a custodian at my children's school. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know his last name, I don't know anything about his family, I don't know what he liked to do when he was not at school, I don't know where he parked or what kind of car he drove. What I do know is that everybody liked Mr. Eugene, and it seemed to me that Mr. Eugene liked everyone. He had the unique ability to keep smiling, which must be hard when your job is the continued cleanliness of a school with a thousand children. (Thinking about trying that does not make me feel like smiling, as I am not able to pull that off in a home consisting of five.) Eugene, and his awesome team, did keep the school clean.

This year they did more than that. This year they moved, along with the teachers, students, administration, lunchroom staff and all the rest of us to a building with fifty years worth of learning and living. As you'd imagine, fifty years of precious children makes a mess. I guess Eugene and the team might have complained about that, but I didn't see it. The first time I entered the school after the move, the hallways of 'stuff' made me want to cry. I have lots of teacher friends, and I'm pretty sure they wanted to cry, too! As odd as it may seem (and this is the truth), I never saw anything but a smile on Mr. Eugene's face. I kept asking how it would all get done, and he just kept saying, "aww, well we'll get it done. It will all be fine." And it was. School started, and fifty years of living and learning with little children looked nothing shy of sparkly!

Keeping a school clean is admirable, but that isn't why I wanted to tell you about Mr. Eugene. The reason I want you to know about him is that Mr. Eugene made kids smile - all of the time. It might not be commonplace to have your children come home with stories of the custodian, but children at Newton County Theme School can tell lots of stories about Mr. Eugene. I heard dozens of them. Mr. Eugene knew the names of the kids, he knew how to make them laugh, he knew they mattered, and he knew that his job had as much to do with making good human beings as it did making a clean school. The way he worked always reminded me of a story I read in a Robert Fulgham book years ago.

The story says that a traveler from Italy came to the French town of Chartres to see the great church that was being built there. Arriving at the end of the day, he went to the site just as the workmen were leaving for home. He asked one man, covered with dust, what he did there. The man replied that he was a stonemason. He spent his days carving rocks. Another man, when asked, said he was a glassblower who spent his days making slabs of colored glass. Still another workman replied that he was a blacksmith who pounded iron for a living.

Wandering into the deepening gloom of the unfinished edifice, the traveler came upon an older woman, armed with a broom, sweeping up the stone chips and wood shavings and glass shards from the day's work. "What are you doing?" he asked.

The woman paused, leaning on her broom, and looking up toward the high arches, replied, "Me? I'm building a cathedral for the Glory of Almighty God."

I've often thought about the people of Chartres. They began something they knew they would never see completed. They built for something larger than themselves. They had a magnificent vision.

I never asked Mr. Eugene what he thought about his job. I never asked him about his philosophy of child development. I never discussed anything much with him. I did laugh a lot with him, and we always shared a little kindness. What I saw more often, though, was the children laughing with him, the children explaining to me that "Mr. Eugene knows my name" - "Mr. Eugene is funny" - "Mr. Eugene makes me laugh" - I can't wait to tell Mr. Eugene" - and on and on and on. If Mr. Eugene had lived to an old age, he would never have seen the adulthood of the children with whom he laughed. He wouldn't have known that for some young child, his believing in them might have turned them in a different direction. He, like the woman with the broom, knew he was part of something he would never see completed. He knew he was building for something larger than himself, that his work was much larger than clean floors and empty trash cans. He knew. I am a Mama who is thankful for his magnificent vision. I am thankful that he knew the names of the kids at the school, that he made them laugh, that he urged them to do their best, that he kept his eye on them, that he hoped they didn't get in trouble.

So maybe a post about Mr. Eugene is the right one for the beginning of a new year. Maybe it would be good for us all to think of the Mr. Eugenes we know and to consider the ways we, too, can be part of building something larger than ourselves. Maybe we could look anew at some of what we do and consider what it is that we are building. We might not see it to completion, but we will know that it is important still. Maybe we can do that.

Rest in peace, Mr. Eugene, and thank you. I hope heaven for you is neat, clean and has no need for that sawdust stuff schools have to use when a child gets sick. I hope no one ever has to call you over the intercom to help with a 'situation.' I hope it's full of laughs and that you can know that you made lots of children smile so many times. You were building your cathedral and it often had nothing to do with cleaning supplies. Thanks.

This morning when I heard about Mr. Eugene, I immediately thought back to a segment of "Story Corps" that I heard on NPR last year. If you have a minute, listen. It's about another Mr. Eugene.


  1. Jack loved Mr. Eugene! I hope his family reads this wonderful tribute to him. He will be greatly missed!

  2. After telling my students the news and opening up the floor for them to talk or ask questions, my classroom errupted in laughter as the students began talking about and displaying dance moves they learned from Mr. Eugene. His postive attitude, laughter, and smile are still contagious even after his physical presence has left us.

  3. Oh, Deana, Thank you for being able to put in words what has been in our hearts. My guess is that Eugene had absolutely no idea what his impact on the world was, but it was huge. Reading your post made me both cry and smile.


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