So Much Crap.

Ron Barnett's portrait.

I haven’t had a lot of different jobs in my life: only two, really. Sure, I worked for two months in a library, and another two months in a discount bookstore. I was a residential care provider in a group home for developmentally disabled adults for a while, a job I absolutely loathed; and I took photos for college IDs, a job I am forever grateful for, because that’s how I met my wife.

But none of those mattered; you might as well count the money I made mowing my parents’ lawn, or the change I’ve found on the street over the years. I never cared about what I was doing, never thought of it as a part of my identity. But work is, at least in this society, an indispensable part of a person’s identity: it is the first question one asks after “What’s your name?” and the source, after family, of our greatest pride, and of our greatest distress. Nobody asks, “What are your hobbies?” or “What is your favorite meal?” No, we want to know what people do. Our job is how we make a living: what a telling phrase.

The two jobs I’ve had in my life are polar opposites in many ways: the first was blue collar, the second white collar; the first had irregular hours, the second a schedule set for me down to the minute; the first was done almost entirely alone, the second could not be performed without other people involved – or, well, it could, but it would be pretty pointless. It would be nice, though: I often joke about how much better the job would be if it was just me alone in a room.

My first job was often just me, alone in a room.

But there are also aspects that are nearly identical: in both cases, I have worked for the government. In both cases I have usually worked early in the morning and been done by midafternoon, and I have always worked on weekends. Both jobs have tried my patience. Both jobs have given me good coworkers and bad, clients I liked and those I couldn’t stand, bosses who made my job(s) easier and ones who made it much, much harder. And both jobs have, on occasion, revolved around crap.

From 1995-2000, I was a custodian and maintenance worker. Since then, I have been a high school English teacher. I have often found it hard to know, for sure, which job I would rather have.

Being a custodian was great. The daily work was never too bad: the facility where I worked, the Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz, was a public building; so every day the bathrooms needed cleaning and the various offices needed to be vacuumed, dusted, and have their trash and recycling emptied. That was my most frequent task for the first half of my standard five-hour shift. The second half was more general maintenance: I would sweep and mop the hallways, vacuum the mats in front of the doors, touch up paint, restock the concession stand, organize supplies and storage, and clean windows. If we had an event, I would set up for it; if we had just finished an event, I would break down equipment and clean up the main hall and the seating area – 1100 fixed theater-style seats. I dumped a lot of garbage cans and I swept a lot of floors.

Image result for santa cruz civic auditorium

I had that custodial job all the way through college. But I finished college in December of 1999, and so in June of the next year – in time for the summer hiring season for new teachers – I quit, and my wife and I moved to San Diego County, where I started applying for full-time teaching positions. And found one, at San Pasqual High School.

I did not like being a teacher right away. The daily work that first year was brutal: I got hired in late July for a school year that started in mid-August; this was not a lot of time to prepare. I had three different classes, none of which I had ever taught before, and so I had to make up, every day, what I was going to teach. I had to write all of my tests, all of my assignments. I had to make up vocab lists, after I made up a system for teaching vocab. I had to lecture, and lead discussions; I had to create group projects; I had to grade. The grading never stopped, never ended. It still hasn’t, 17 years later. In addition, I didn’t have my own room, and so I traveled that year, going from room to room and building to building during every five-minute passing period, pushing a cart full of books and papers and my coffee cup. I worked 60-hour weeks, spending hours every day after school grading papers and creating curriculum, sleeping only a few hours a night because I spent most of my time worrying about whether or not what I was doing was having any positive effect on my students, and pretty sure that it wasn’t.

I never worried about being a custodian. There were certainly days I didn’t want to go to work: we used to have certain events that were particularly long or difficult, such as whenever the Pickle Family Circus came to town, since they would do two shows a day, which meant we had to clean the hall in between the two shows. The summer Wine and Music Festival meant twelve- and sixteen-hour days, mostly outside in the California summer heat hauling equipment and supplies and garbage up and down the street. The hemp show people were a nightmare, as were the Gem and Mineral show vendors. And then there were the raves. They used to have raves at the Civic, once our manager realized he could sell 2000 tickets at $20 apiece, and then trap all 2000 people inside for twelve hours with no food except what they bought from our concession stand. The Civic made huge amounts of money on those things. And then we maintenance staff had to clean the place up. Imagine 2000 sweaty people, dancing for twelve hours, throwing around food and drinks the whole time, and – to judge from what they left behind – taking lots of drugs, taking off their clothes, and having way more sex than seems appropriate in a crowded concert hall. We had to mop the whole building, including the walls, and that was after we had swept out an entire dumpster worth of waste.

I’m not even going to talk about the bathrooms.

After my first year at the Civic, I got – well, sort of a promotion. They realized, first, that I was responsible and reliable; second, that I was particularly good at fine details and spending hours and hours on one tedious task; and third, that as a college student, I was totally willing to be exploited. So they made me a shift supervisor – but, you know, not really. I didn’t get any more pay, or any promotion or anything. They just gave me more responsibility. They had me lead crews for setup or cleanup, and they had me supervise alone for some of the smaller, quieter weekend events. And they gave me The Binder. The Binder was pages and pages of maintenance tasks that only needed to be done three or four times a year, like clean out the furnace room, or sweep the attic catwalks, or polish the brass door handles. I was now responsible for everything in the binder. In addition to everything else I did.

That didn’t happen after my first year teaching. No, it would take six or seven years before I got extra responsibilities – but then they came all at once, just as the actual teaching part was getting easier. I still got exploited, though. I was made the Chair of the English department – only a year before the school cut the stipend that came with the position. I was asked to be the “guru” for our new grading and attendance program, which was fine the first year when they paid me for it – but then after that, everybody just came to me for help, though the school didn’t pay me any more. I ran a Gaming Club, and then an Argument Club, and then a Philosophy Club, and then a Gaming Club again – along with a lunchtime talent show I co-hosted, when I wasn’t singing in the staff band.

But that was okay; I liked the musical tasks, and the clubs, for the most part. Serving as the head of negotiations for the teacher’s union was less pleasant, since we had a contract dispute that almost led to a strike that year. So along with teaching all of my classes, grading and planning and preparing, and all of the conferences and meetings and trainings that come with the job, I also had to have meetings with my union team, and contract negotiations sessions; I had to give updates to the other teachers, and lead union activities like marches and such. I slept even less that year, as any minute not spent thinking about my classes was spent thinking about how every teacher in the district was counting on me to do a good job.

Amusingly enough, that was also the year when I was waiting to see if the state would strip my license to teach, after I got busted for writing mean things about my students and my job on a public blog, which was a violation of the computer use policy as well as – well, let’s call it the honor code. That was a little stressful, too, since I knew I might be looking at the end of my teaching career. But here’s how that all ended up: we got a contract; I was named Teacher of the Year for the district; and then I got suspended for thirty days without pay. That was when I quit and moved to Arizona. Where I had to appear before an ethics committee to explain my suspension. They called me “morally reprehensible.”

It’s funny: I used to steal stuff from the Civic all the time. I mean ALL the time. Toilet paper, paper towels, these thick cleaning cloths that my wife used for cleaning her paintbrushes; Windex, bleach, hand soap, light bulbs; we used to borrow tools, painting supplies, even the carpet cleaner when we needed it. And that’s not even getting into the food I used to take from the concession stand. I can’t tell you how much coffee I got for free over the five years I worked there. And the candy: every time I brought candy to the stand from the storeroom, some of it disappeared into me. So did all the leftover popcorn. If ever I have been morally reprehensible at work, it was while I was a custodian. And yet I never got in trouble for it there.

The best part of working as a custodian was that I got to work alone. I almost never had to speak to people; when I did, it was always very brief and businesslike. Then I would put on my headphones and listen to music while I vacuumed and mopped and dusted. Even when I led shifts, I would assign the tasks, and usually take the worst for myself – which was generally the bathrooms. But I didn’t really mind: turns out bathrooms have great acoustics if you’re the type who likes to sing along with music. My pay eventually caught up with my promotion, and I made decent money, had benefits and a guaranteed twenty hours a week, on a schedule I could pretty much pick and choose. I also got into any concert I wanted, free.

The best part of working as a teacher is the fact that I’m a teacher. I do love literature, even more than singing; I like my students more than my mop and broom – well, mostly. I certainly like them more than the brass polish: that stuff was nasty. I believe in what I do, as much as I’m actually allowed to do what I believe in, which is not all the time. I have much better pay and benefits, and summers off, which I love. And I never have to scrape gum off of the bottom of 1100 fixed theater-style seats.

That was a lot of gum. People who put gum on the bottom of their seats are morally reprehensible.

I still cannot say, though, which job I would rather have.

The nastiest thing I ever had to do at the Civic was clean up the lobby after an elderly man had a bathroom accident, not in the bathroom, during the Symphony. Or maybe it was the several times I had to clean up what the homeless people left in the bushes outside. No – no, it was the bathrooms after the raves. Definitely that. Let me just say this: people stopped using the actual toilets, figuring that anywhere in the room was good enough. The nastiest thing I ever had to do as a teacher was when I had to report a sex crime. I would rather clean the bathrooms than do that again.

The worst I was ever treated at the Civic was when the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu people kept me there for four hours longer than they were supposed to, just because they were hanging out instead of cleaning up, and every time I said something, they Bro’d me out of the room. (Bro, chill out, bro! We’re working on it, bro! We’ll be done real soon, bro. Hey, do you lift?) The worst I ever got treated as a teacher was when seventeen of my Honors students cheated on the same essay because they didn’t read the book. Or maybe when I caught three girls cheating, and they yelled in my ear for ten minutes while I had to walk across the campus (That was when I was traveling, remember?) to find the proof – which did finally shut them up: because even though they kept shouting at me that I was wrong and they were offended that I would ever insult them with that accusation, I wasn’t wrong.

But being right doesn’t stop people from arguing with me, questioning me, telling me how to do my job, which seems to be everyone’s favorite pastime: students, parents, administrators, random people I meet on the street, they all want to give me ideas for how to teach. That might be the worst treatment I get. Or maybe it is every single day when my students, who talk about how much they (generally) like me and like my class, spend most of that same class ignoring me while they are talking, sleeping, doing math homework, or staring at their phones.

No – no, it was that morally reprehensible thing. That was truly the worst thing that has ever happened to me at work. Ever. I would rather clean those bathrooms with my bare hands than deal with all of that again: the meetings with superintendents, the consultations with my lawyer, the threats from the state’s lawyer, the fact that I will always have that black mark on my record, for something that isn’t half as bad as the things that have been said online about me – and sometimes, to my face.

Working at the Civic meant cleaning up a lot of crap. Working as a teacher means taking it.

So I suppose that’s really the answer: I would rather clean bathrooms. I wonder if anyone is hiring.

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