I was prompted to write this article because of a disheartening incident that occurred this week. First, I’ll explain the incident. Then I’ll elucidate the ideological and ethical dilemmas it evinces.
This weekend I attended the PossePlus Retreat. This year’s subject matter was “Class, Power and Privilege in the United States.” This topic underlies what I found upon returning to my dorm, Ormsby.
Generally, the second floor of Ormsby is in shambles, especially during the weekend. This aspect is made more severe by the antiquity of the dormitory. When I returned from the PossePlus Retreat, I found the bathroom and hallway so dirty that I was prompted to clean it myself—truthfully, it’s been in worse conditions, but I was moved by the conversations I’d had over the weekend.
There was Easter paper strewn across the south hallway, and the bathrooms were riddled with toilet paper, hand towels and various forms of human waste. I was moved to clean because the image of our janitor having to clean up that mess enraged and saddened me.
After I finished cleaning, I hand-wrote a poster with the following: “Would you like to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to clean up the 3rd floor of Ormsby? No! Every morning, a fellow student and custodian must wake up to be here and collect the semblances of your inconsiderateness and carelessness. Please Cease being unconscientious!” and put it up. I assumed it would be vandalized and torn down at some point, but I hoped it might affect some of my floor mates positively. As expected, it was vandalized the next day with an addendum.
The gravity of the opinion expressed on the poster and the antagonism directed at the janitor was shocking: The student assumed that the janitor wrote the message. The addition is revelatory of an opinion that might be held by many here on campus, an opinion that demands attention.
The vandal seemed to think that paying “$120,000” to go to this school somehow exonerates you from having to consider the effect your behavior has on the staff who work to maintain the hygiene of Lawrence University. In fact, the student seems to think that you’re entitled to make demands of the staff, such as: “[…] you’re a paid custodian who made the choice to work this job, so you know what? I say go clean it twice as much as you do now, because believe us, we’re more fed up with you than you are with us.”
Absolutely! Especially since students cannot possibly be responsible for the rubbish and mess in the hallways and bathrooms after a Lawrence weekend; as this student points out, “the difference between Trever and Ormsby on a Sunday morning is you, not me.” Hence, the responsibility of maintenance falls on the shoulders of the staff, not the students, so it follows that our janitor should “[…] suck it up and accept that [he’s] getting paid to clean piss and vomit off the floors.” If they’d prefer otherwise, then they should “quit the job” because “somebody else will gladly take it.” The student also added some anecdotal evidence, citing a circumstance when the janitor, “walked into the filthy bathrooms, and said, ‘fuck that’ and walked out without cleaning them,” which the student thinks takes away the janitor’s “credibility […] along with the 6 a.m. vacuuming and two week long period where you forgot to take out the hallway trash.”
Unbeknownst to the student, the janitor responsible for the aforementioned incompetency was an adjunct who replaced our official janitor for two weeks due to illness.
I recount this information not because I want to condemn the student who wrote it, but rather to demonstrate what this perspective neglects. In a sense, I am thankful to the student, since his reaction provided the conditions requisite to warrant writing this article.
The student indicated dissatisfaction with the cleanliness of the space and admonished the janitor for allowing it to remain that way. What seems odd is the displacement of agency, shifted from the students who create the mess to the janitor who must deal with the consequences. The student says, “Do you think I deserve to take a shit on urine covered seats everyday?!” but who is responsible for the seats being covered in urine to begin with?
Should we as students not also be accountable for maintaining the hygiene of the space we inhabit, not only for our own sakes but also for the sake of those we cohabitate with?
I think we should. This does not imply physically cleaning; doing so would render the custodial staff redundant. It does imply conducting oneself with care. It is not difficult to aim properly; it is not difficult to make sure paper towels reach the receptacle.
Failing to engage in these behaviors belittles the importance and necessity of the custodial staff’s work, and it disregards their humanity. Yes, they are being paid; but that doesn’t entitle us to carelessly undo the work they carry out everyday. Your money being channeled into their pockets does not confer any special rights. If you think the contrary, then you possess a false sense of entitlement; dangerous, in that it sanctions blatant disrespect and abuse towards other human beings. That, in my opinion, is the troubling part of this situation.
I urge students to evaluate their positions on this matter and empathize with the custodial staff by imagining themselves in a janitorial position: Waking up every morning to find the bathrooms and hallways destroyed by foreign objects, a strange residue and the murky waters of the previous night’s festivities. It is out of respect for our custodians, out of respect for our peers and out of respect for ourselves that we should strive to alter our behavior.