It was career day for the ninth graders at Linnaeus Limestone Junior High. So far they’d heard presentations from a hair salon owner, an accountant, a chef-restaurateur, and a fire chief.
Mr. Loizencraft was next to speak. He was a former teacher, and now an insurance salesman. He hadn’t enjoyed teaching. Now, based on his statements to the class, it seemed his woebegone persona remained consistent. He barely enjoyed the insurance industry. Poor Mr. Loizencraft.
Meanwhile, the last speaker of the day and most anticipated guest, Mr. Rhodes, called to say he couldn’t make it. He told the school receptionist he had fallen ill after lunch. She told her officemates, “The kids are going to be so disappointed. Especially Jimmy. He was going to bring swag. I know we could have used the pens.”
The truth was, Mr. Rhodes had an opportunity to golf with another executive who happened to be in town. it sounded like a merger was in the works. Hopefully his nephew Jimmy would understand that things come up.
Mr. Perelka, the janitor, happened to overhear the conversation. He went back to his closet and locked up. No one noticed as he exited through a side door and headed home, less than a mile away. He put on a suit he hadn’t worn in years, and headed back to the school.
As he entered the office, he looked very familiar to the staff, but many couldn’t quite “place” his face. They looked up at him admiringly. He filled out a guest pass and put a name sticker on. Then he walked to the library where career day was happening.
Mrs. Goodacre, “Oh, hello? You must be our next speaker today. Mr. Rhodes?”
“He couldn’t make it. My name is Mr. Perelka.” He entered the room. “Hello, students! How are we doing today?”
The students all had glazed expressions. Jimmy sulked at the back of the room.
“Tough crowd, tough crowd. I am your last speaker today.”
“Yay!” blurted most of the students.
“Okay, okay, I know you’re ready to get out of here. I’ll ask again: how are we doing?”
“I’m Mr. Perelka, and I really like what I do. I have a riddle for you. I like an organized, clean workspace. I get to see smiling faces every day. I get to see growth. My teammates also like to see development right before their eyes. We’re all on a mission to help our customers learn. So can anyone guess where I work?”
One girl raised her hand. “The arboretum?”
“Good guess, good guess, but no. Anyone else?”
One boy raised his hand and inquired, “Pickens Chicken Farm?”
“Not bad, either, but no. Who else?”
There was a long silence.
“I’ll repeat what I said a minute ago: My teammates also like to see development right before their eyes. We’re all on a mission to help our customers learn.”
“Oh!” another girl raised her hand. “You work with computers like my mom and dad. You make software.”
“Another great guess, but no. So are we stumped? Are we all out of guesses?”
The students made an “uh-huh” noise in awkward unison.
“I’ll provide one last clue: some people say I really clean up.”
There was another long silence.
“I am actually here every day. I’m Mr. Perelka, and I’m your school janitor.”
There were audible gasps around the room. It was mostly kids, but a few teachers, too. Jimmy chuckled and noted, “That’s a dad joke.”
“Well, I am a dad. A lot of you probably don’t recognize me outside of my usual uniform. Some of you might not have noticed my face until today. That’s okay, I didn’t take this job for the fame.”
“Some parts of my job involve messy, icky stuff, but that’s okay. Every job involves messes. I get to be the problem-solver that cleans them up. My job has paid well enough to help afford a house and send two little girls to college.”
“But the real treat, I get to watch each of you grow from nervous sixth graders to sophisticated, promising ninth graders. I don’t fear for the future of this country. I see it get a little better every day.
A girl raised her hand. “You said you helped us learn, but you’re not a teacher.”
“Good point. Not all learning is done in a classroom. Even when you graduate high school in four years, you are only just beginning. So what is my role? Sometimes I help new students find their way to the office or that first new class. I talk to that girl no one’s eating lunch with, or that boy that didn’t make the JV team he wanted to be a part of. These opportunities aren’t on TV or Instagram, but I will always remember them,” he pointed to his temple, “up here.”
“My message to you students today is, a job is something you will spend a lot of your life doing. A lot of people want jobs that others will envy them for, instead of ones that will bring them personal joy. So every day it’s that much harder for them to show up. Maybe you’ve noticed your parents talk about dreaded Mondays.”
Some of the students nodded.
“Whatever you decide to do, you want a job like feels like that for you. There’s no Monday feeling in a job like that. Every day here at the double Linnaeus Limestone is different. I don’t know what’s going to happen before I get here, but I’m excited to find out. I hate to miss a day, or a moment. Thank you. I’ll see you in the hallway.”
The students all stood up and clapped. There would be several more career days before the class of 2022 finished high school, but none as memorable many years later as this one.