Alicia’s Note: Education and Learning Beyond the Classroom
by Nadine Dolby - July 24, 2019
In this commentary, the author reflects on what she learned from a note left for her by a custodian at her university.
I flipped on the light and took off my heavy coat, boots, hat, and gloves as I entered my office. It was one of those cold, dark, and snowy February days, and I just wanted to sink into my office chair and revive myself before starting to work.
As I started to sit down, I saw it on my chair: a note that began, I hope its not presumptuous of me, but I wanted to say thank you for putting up a poster for your film discussion series. The note continued to discuss some of the films that were advertised on a flyer on my door, with positive reviews and thanks. This note on my chair was not left by a colleague, a student, or even a secretary who had access to my office: it was signed Alicia, 4th floor custodian, Building Services.
From the note I learned that Alicia, who cleaned my office, the hallways, bathrooms, elevators, and common rooms in my building late at night, had been intrigued by the flyer, which advertised a film series that I ran a few years ago on human-animal relationships: a topic that I teach and write about often. So Alicia had searched online and found some of the titles, watched them, loved them, and wanted to thank me for sharing the titles with her.
I had never met Alicia before she left the note on my chair, so I do not know much about her specific story. I do know that custodians at Purdue need to have a GED or high school degree, and that they earn about $25,000 to $30,000 a year. Many custodians are, of course, local residents and stay on for years if not decades. The benefits are good in the regional context as are the working conditions. Some custodians do not fit this general profile. For example, I know an international spouse, married to a PhD student, who worked as a custodian for a while on campus. She found the pay reasonable given her context, and the hours allowed her to stay home with the children during the day, working at night. But I would assume that most custodians at my university have little more than a high school degree and limited access to an undergraduate education.
I know there are faculty who never give a thought to the people who work second and third shift, cleaning and preparing the spaces that we use every day and then disappearing into the early morning. If I arrive on campus for an early meeting or to teach a 7:30 class, I pass them in the tunnels that run from my building to the closest parking garage as they go home, and as students and faculty arrive. These workers are not invisible to me: my background is more working class; I have worked as a secretary (among other jobs), and I live in a neighborhood where people struggle economically. Despite my general awareness of the lives and working conditions of custodial staff on my campus, Alicias note challenged and touched me in ways I did not expect.
When I taped the flyer about the film series to my door, my imaginary audience was my colleagues and students. The flyer about the human-animal bond film series was not the only flyer on my door as I regularly make flyers for my elective courses to send electronically to colleagues and potential students. The paper copies on my door are somewhat of an afterthought, just meant to brighten the hallway and perhaps attract the attention of someone walking by or a student waiting to meet with one of my colleagues.
What I forgot is that it is not only students, faculty, and administrative staff who roam our hallways and are part of our intellectual community. That community is much wider than I imagined and includes custodians like Alicia, the electricians who are always puttering around in the ceiling outside of my door, and even the person delivering pizza if they have enough time to slow down, stop, and read. On deeper reflection, I realized it is probably the custodians, more than anyone else, who read the postings on the doors and bulletin boards that line our hallways. After all, they are there when it is quiet and empty, and there is no one to stare and wonder what they are doing as they pause for ten minutes to read the information on a flyer and then perhaps find a pen and paper, or pull out a phone, and scribble down whatever they want to remember. Custodians are not included in all of those email lists that I generally use to advertise my classes: the entire electronic world of the academic side of campus is closed to them. Yet the paper world is there on my door, accessible and free to anyone who walks by.
Alicias note changed my understanding of what it means not simply to teach within the confines of a classroom but to educate. Her note reminded me that many people want to learn, but they do not have ready access to a formal education.
Joseph Featherstone (2003), in his essay Letter to a Young Teacher, writes passionately about the need to develop the capacity to participate, so that we as human beings can participate in our communities, in our workplaces, and in the larger project of democracy (p. 165). This means understanding that education and learning happen everywhere and that our responsibility as educators does not end at the classroom door. Just as medical doctors have the responsibility of trying to save the person having a heart attack at 30,000 feet, we, as educators, need to understand that our scope, our influence, and, yes, our responsibility is broad and wide.
From her note, I learned that Alicia had found and watched two of the films I was using in the film series, Blackfish and The Paw Project, but she was still looking for the third film, The Champions, which follows the dogs seized from Michael Vick during the federal dogfighting case. As I had a copy of the DVD at home, I left her a note on my chair, exactly where I had found hers, thanking her for her interest and offering to lend it to her so she could watch it.
Perhaps not surprisingly I never heard back from Alicia. My note sat there for a week, and then I reluctantly placed it in the recycling bin. Maybe she was out sick or on vacation, maybe she only felt brave enough to leave the note for me because she knew it was her last night on my floor: that she was being transferred to another part of campus or was leaving the job.
Like many faculty, I know that my life and career have been shaped by my mentors, my colleagues, and my students. To that list I can now add one more: a custodian named Alicia.
Featherstone, J. (2003). Dear Josie: Witnessing the hopes and failures of democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press.