Somehow, an elementary school of more than 500 kids and about 100 adults kept a secret.
At lunchtime Friday, with just a few days left in the school year, after thousands of spills and messes and crises that custodians Brenda Greene and Henry Stewart cleaned up, the school stopped for a moment.
Greene stood in the cafeteria, ready to clean up after the kindergarteners. Stewart, cleaning cloths in hand, stood ready to spring after spills.
They never got the chance.
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The ringleader of the secret, Principal Annette Chinchilla, came across the school intercom. She declared Friday, “Queen Brenda Greene and King Henry Stewart Day.”
Then Chinchilla grabbed the mop bucket and cleaning supplies, and announced that she would handle all the cafeteria clean-ups – and anything else that came up.
In that cafeteria, when the announcement came, Stewart and Greene were stunned. Shocked. The place erupted into cheers.
Applause is not the right word. It was a rock concert, these cheers for the people who clean the school. Teachers clapped and cheered even louder. Some cried for these custodians who never say no when needed.
Then each custodian was led by kids up onto the little stage at the end of the cafeteria. There, the kids adorned them with sashes they had made, and capes and crowns.
Finally, they sat down on chairs fashioned into thrones.
On one of the many placards made by the kids, one note said, “Mr. Henry, you are the nicest person I ever met.”
On another, a girl wrote: “Mrs. Greene, you are the best person in the whole world.”
All for the people who clean the floors, the toilets, the cafeteria, so that teachers can teach and kids can learn.
Henry Stewart, a guy’s guy, 10 years on the job, well, he cried up on that stage as he waved to the kids.
“This is the greatest thing anybody ever did for me,” he said.
Brenda Greene, 23 years a custodian, said, “This school is so much of my life. I am just thrilled.”
The kids filed past, bringing flowers and vases and cupcakes and cards. They clapped and cheered and many got hugs. A tiny kid in kindergarten walked by with a flower, and asked, “Is that what it is to go on a date?”
No, no date, but love from hundreds to two people, nonetheless.
Terrance Darby, fifth grade, age 11, shook hands with Henry Stewart, who said, “Thanks, young man.”
And Terrance Darby just said, “Thank you, Mr. Stewart, for being our friend.”
Megan Caskill, 10, fifth-grade, said of these custodians, “They are the nicest people. Great.”
Chinchilla said these custodians are not staff. They are not invisible people who clean.
“They are family, and we love them,” the principal said. “We cannot thank them enough for what they do each day. So, this is a way to honor them. They are royalty in our eyes.”
Then all through the lunchtime, Chinchilla walked around the cafeteria, cleaning tables just as Henry Stewart and Brenda Greene normally would do – except each was up on that tiny stage, on thrones, accepting gratitude and waving.
And did they wave.
Henry Stewart waved and smiled until he could not raise his arm and his face muscles hurt. Brenda Greene hugged dozens of kids, teachers took pictures and talked about Henry Stewart’s never saying no to a request, and Brenda Greene’s charm with students and her work ethic.
Every adult talked about how these two people smile all day, and how that smile is infectious.
Nowhere in any education guidebook for teachers is there any outline for how to treat the people who do the things that make a school run and stay clean.
But Riverview Elementary School in Fort Mill, where the motto is “Liftoff to Learning,” taught hundreds of kids a lesson not in any book Friday.
That school’s adults showed how to show somebody gratitude.
As Brenda Greene, 62, put it, “We all can help a child learn how to love. They gave that love back to us today.”