Every school day just after 2 p.m., Sandra pushes her cart into my classroom to clean the bathroom and empty the trash cans. She is the school custodian, and my students love her.

When students hear her squeaky wheels in the hallway outside our door, they listen for her kind giggle as she enters the room.

“Ms. Sandra! Ms. Sandra! Can I help you empty the trash? Can I help you?” they yell out with their hands waving in the air.

She responds, “Jennifer, you look so cute today! How you doin’ Victor? Francisco, baby, you look like you’re doing a good job for Mr. Barton. You come on over and help me today. Anna, honey, that’s OK, you can help me tomorrow.” She knows all of my students by name.

I asked Sandra what I had been wondering for a while: “What do you like best about working at our school?”

She put her hands on her hips and said, “It’s the kids! I only take home about $20,000 a year, so it’s not the money. I have to work second shift, so I don’t like the hours. And people see me as just a janitor, so I don’t like the way I’m treated sometimes. But I love the kids.”

She does love our students. On a recent Friday, one of our second-graders was having a tough day. He hated teachers, he said.

At lunch when a teacher asked him to pick up trash he’d left at the table, he threw his tray onto the floor, stomped over to the corner and refused to budge.

It was Sandra who helped put him back together again.

“Now, you know you can’t act that way. I know your momma,” she said in her precise, slow, southern drawl. “I’m gonna put her number in my cell phone and call her and tell her you’re not actin’ right.”

Soon, she had him cleaning up his tray and washing the table where his class had been sitting.

One day, I saw her give an extra milk to a student.

“Sometimes, I buy my lunch and sit beside a child I know is hungry,” she told me. “Then I can say, ‘You can have some of this if you want it,’ or ‘You can have some of that.’ Children can’t learn if they’re hungry.”

When she leaves my classroom, she walks across the hall.

“Hello A,” I hear her say. “Look at those new glasses on you. They make you look so handsome.” She knows all of the names and stories of the students in that class, too.

“Mr. Barton,” she said to me during a quiet moment after school, “I know ’bout these children because I come from where they come … Are you feelin’ me? Sometimes, they need somebody to talk to them who understands them.”

I see the way Sandra loves our students, the way she knows their names. How she talks to them and helps them. How she understands them.

I just want Sandra to know that someone noticed. I told her, “I’m glad you’re at our school and I’m thankful for you.”

Here’s to all the Sandras in our world.

Trevor Barton teaches second grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. This story first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance website.

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