The world lost an elementary school custodian yesterday, and a better man than most.

I lost a friend yesterday.

John was a custodian at my school. We both started working at Wolcott Elementary School 17 years ago. More than a custodian, John was an important person in the lives of many children. He offered high fives to students as they headed off to their buses. He was on duty during concerts, Boy Scout meetings, after-school daycare, school plays, and more. He knew the names of more students in our school than many of our teachers, myself included.  

Almost every one of my memories of every event at my school over the past 17 years has John standing somewhere in the background, watching and waiting to help whenever possible.

  • He made sure that the dunk tank was filled with warm water before I climbed aboard the hot seat.
  • He cleaned up after my students' overly ambitious science fair projects. 
  • He stood in the doorway to my classroom, watching my students perform in their annual Shakespearean production.
  • He often arrived to work early on Friday to watch our students read and sing and act in our weekly Town Meeting. 

John was a good man. The best of men. 

John was in a car accident on his way to work yesterday. He died in the accident. No surprise that John was on his way to school. For the past 15 years, he has had perfect attendance. 

I have many stories about John from over the years. Here is one of my favorites:

In my second year of teaching, when I was still dumb as a rock, a colleague and I thought it would be amusing to empty the thousands - if not millions - of tiny paper punch-outs from the binding machine into the classroom of one of our teammates. By the time we were finished, it looked as though it had snowed in the classroom. Tiny paper rectangles were everywhere.

It was a stupid and thoughtless prank. While our colleague was shocked by the appearance of her classroom, I put no thought into who would ultimately clean up the mess. This was especially egregious because I was just a year away from managing a McDonald's restaurant, and I was all too aware of the thoughtlessness of people who assume that service workers are available to clean up their mess at all times.

In my mind, these millions of tiny rectangles were someone else's mess  

 John's mess.

John was upset by the enormous amount of work that we had created, but he didn't say a word to anyone. He simply took out his vacuum and cleaned up the mess. Another colleague, much wiser and better than me, took me aside and pointed out my thoughtlessness.

I felt like such a fool. 

The next day I came to work with my vacuum and told John that I would clean the rugs in my wing of the school for a week. I apologized and told him how awful I felt.  

John refused my offer.

I refused his refusal.

In the end, I spent a week vacuuming the classrooms in my wing with John, side by side. I got to know John well during that week, including a new found appreciation for his job.

John forgave me for my thoughtlessness instantly. He never made me feel stupid or insensitive for what was stupid and insensitive. He never brought up the incident again. 

He was a much better man than me.  

My heart broke upon hearing about his death. John has been a fixture in my life for almost two decades. He was often the last person who I spoke to before leaving work each day. We often parted company laughing about something that we found mutually amusing. 

Today was the first day in 15 years that John was not in my classroom at the end of the day. I can't believe that he is gone. I find myself struggling to recall our last conversation, wanting to hold onto it forever. It was something about my wife's search for a new job and how much I wish she would return to our school and teach in her old classroom again.  

I remember telling John how much I still miss her during the school day. 

Now I will miss him, too.

His name was John Emsholff, and I still can't believe he is gone. He was loved by many. He made a difference in the lives of children. The world is a darker place today without him.