Who cleans up a discarded hypodermic needle abandoned before 6 a.m. outside your front door?

At Portland Adult Education, Angela, our head (and, usually, only) custodian gets the sharps container and safely stashes it, allowing the hundreds of students and staff soon to enter the building to focus on learning.

In a time when we lavish attention and money on people who move zeros and ones in the digital universe, we’ve forgotten to honor custody and care in our physical world. But Angela never forgets. For the past six years at our school, Angela has embodied her name and her role as custodian.

When teachers and I myself were safely home during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, Angela was at Portland Adult Education receiving packages, coaching students to email teachers, moving furniture to ensure 6-foot distances, installing hand sanitizers and cleaning every surface in a three-story building with 14 classrooms. She also shifted all the plants in the building to the sunny front hallway and tended them until they flourished, reminding us that we would once again thrive in this building together.

As we made our way back into the building, it was Angela who set up outdoor testing and device distribution stations to loan computers and hot spots to students. She hauled winter gear and food for students living in shelters to assist our social worker. Angela joined teams to launch new systems as the balance tilted from remote classes to full-capacity classrooms at school. She shifted furniture yet again to create quiet study spaces for students who had no access to Wi-Fi at home. She helped teach students where to park.

During the two lockdown days following the Lewiston shootings, Angela was in the building while the rest of our school community hunkered at home. She and the crisis team resolved that, when we reopened, we would try to ensure safety by requiring IDs to buzz people into the school. This was not our practice during my 22 years here, and was a huge change for a building that has about 200 adults enter and exit four times a day. Angela jumped in to support office staff during the busiest times of the day, monitoring the buzzer. But she knew the front door was just part of our security hole. After nudging and pushing for a full year, she also got proper blinds installed on the windows of classroom doors to replace blue rolls of paper we’d taped up to limit visibility for intruders. She is our “guardian Angela.”


Recent years have often felt frightening in public spaces, swinging from pandemic to lockdown, but Angela is not just a crisis manager. She’s there to minimize damage during rainstorms that routinely seep through the basement. She carefully maintains the aging plumbing. She orders the toilet paper and sorts the recycling. Hers is ordinary, essential work in this old school.

We recently learned that Angela’s position as head custodian at Portland Adult Education has been eliminated in the current Portland Public School budget.

Tough year. Everyone has to make sacrifices. I get it.

Except that it makes zero sense when she’s the one person who makes it possible for thousands of adults to work and learn in a safe, clean environment.

Why should it matter to you if these students feel cared for at school?

These students become certified nursing assistants and nurses caring for us in the hospital. They drive buses to get employees to jobs in laboratories and manufacturing plants. They teach our children. We share custody in this community. As surely as zeroes and ones build the internet, we build our city with the hands that stow the needles and wipe away viruses. Let us pay and respect our guardians, our Angelas.

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