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Praise for Miss Saundra. #EssentialWorkers @ School

In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor. 

Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.

If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.

Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.

Kids carry on.

When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!

This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest! 

I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that. 

I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song. 

#EssentialWorkers, #SanitationWorkers

A Lockdown Moan

As the second lockdown has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on my own lockdown experiences quite a lot. My overall sense is that of gratitude, in that I have been fortunate enough to maintain and be offered new employment during this difficult time.   

During the first lockdown I was a key worker and travelled to and from work on public transport whilst everyone else was ordered to ‘stay safe, and stay at home’. At times this was frustrating, and although I generally had faith in humanity my views on this were tested. During, lockdown 1.0 I witnessed people being much more aggressive to key workers. I worked in a place where I did not expect people to be nice to me, but even on my route to and from work I found that I was subjected to the odd remark.  

One morning at 6am whilst in the city center I was even called ‘a rapist’ because I did not have any change to give to a homeless person, he then sort of offered to fight me. Of course, I wouldn’t ever fight anyone, and he would have been completely unaware that I had just finished a night shift so I would not prove to be a worthy opponent in any sense. I also remember sitting on the bus one night whilst a man, who appeared mentally unwell, persisted to cough all over me (mask free) before exiting at his stop. 

I didn’t take any of these experiences personally, and thankfully I didn’t get Covid. It was clear that these people had many of their own problems – many of which may have been exacerbated due to Covid. The lack of understanding of Covid for some people also highlights a key issue i.e., that mainstream concerns are not being communicated to wider population within our society.  

I did find myself frustrated by the general population who in my experience, did not appear as positive and kind as the media seemed to suggest. I experienced many incidents of people being selfish, such as people snapping and venting their frustrations at others who are simply just trying to do their jobs (with shocking pay and poor contracts might I add). On top of this was the notion of visiting a supermarket after a 12 hour night shift whilst people scramble for the last scraps of essentials whilst you are walking around like a zombie. With bare shelves, rude people and long queues….what more could key workers ask for? For Christ sake, someone even tried to steal a tin of beans out of my shopping trolley on one occasion!  

During lockdown 2.0 I have been very privileged indeed, as I am able to work from home. Staying in this bubble of mine has also made me feel much less frustrated. But I do still wonder, why is it that we feel that those who provide a ‘service’ to us are not people themselves? People with their own problems, thoughts and feelings. Do we think that people are robots? Is this why some people think that it is ok to vent their frustrations at others? I am sure that other people have had more positive experiences than this, but I can’t understand why people aren’t being more kind and understanding of each other. There is a difference between being a service provider and being a servant…people seem to forget this sometimes.  

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