Blackridge Elementary’s caretaker
Blackridge Elementary teachers point at Tommy Lawrence, the school’s head custodian. (Blackridge Elementary)
Gallery: Blackridge Elementary’s caretaker [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
How does a man like Tommy Lawrence wind up working full time at an elementary school? It’s a question Lawrence himself and his boss, Steve Giles, wondered several years ago.
The 33-year-old head custodian, who said he can be found hunting or fishing when he’s not at work, can be distinguished by his tattoos, including one that spirals down his right arm and another that creates a flame design from his left wrist to forearm.
“This guy is all man,” Principal Steve Giles said. “He’s very sensitive without being too gentle and, through it, has a great bond with the kids.”
It wasn’t Lawrence’s plan to work with children—or be a custodian, for that matter—but health challenges led the heavy equipment mechanic to change careers.
“I went out and looked for the first available job coming out of construction, and it was custodial,” he said. “The best way I can describe it is living in one foreign country and moving to another. I used to work with ornery, angry people, and now I’m dealing with kids who just make you laugh and giggle all day.”
While a janitor is typically a caretaker of the school building and grounds, according to Giles, Lawrence is the caretaker of a whole lot more—distressed students, tired teachers and anyone else who could use a friend.
Realizing a need to help kids stay hydrated at recess, Lawrence designed and built an outdoor drinking fountain. When kids get in trouble and are assigned to clean bathrooms or the cafeteria as a behavior consequence, “they become friends with him and want to be better just to please Tommy,” Giles said.
One day at lunch a student was crying because the spacers in his mouth left him too sore to eat. Lawrence went into the kitchen, grabbed two Jell-O cups and sat down to enjoy the snack with the student, according to staff members.
“He’d do anything for anyone,” said Michelle Lindsey, who teaches fifth grade at Blackridge. “I’m in charge of the PE equipment. He built me shelves and helped assemble the difficult equipment I ordered. When part of the equipment broke, he redesigned it to make it better than before.”
These incidents aren’t isolated. Without being asked, Lawrence collected 200 milk cartons from the cafeteria, washed them and dried them for the first grade to use to create gingerbread houses, and Vice Principal Shauna Worthington said she’s noticed Lawrence come in and buff the floors before special events on his own accord.
Kindergarten teacher Mindy Smith said Lawrence intervened several times when an angry student wanted to harm her or other children.
“They ended up becoming good buddies,” Smith said.
In a way, Lawrence has become an icon for the students at the school. Blackridge hosts a yearly competition to go along with a school fundraiser. The grades are divided into two teams: half led by Giles and the other half led by Lawrence.
Both teams try to raise the most money. Upon losing, the team leader must take on a challenge such as painting his nails or wearing a tutu.
Lindsey’s fifth-grade class was on Giles’ team, but she said, as much as her students love Giles, a few of them insisted on cheering for Lawrence because he’s been such a good friend and role model for them.
Students often try to peek through the blinds in Lawrence’s office window to say hello. While Lawrence said he appreciates the salutation, he admits it can be distracting to his normal work day. To stay focused but still let the students know that he’s thinking about them, Lawrence created a glass-framed ant farm in December that fits into his office window, complete with a toy well, model trees and miniature people figurines. The students can’t see Lawrence through his window anymore, but they can see the habitat he created for them to study.
The connection Lawrence has with the students is irreplaceable, said Giles, who also said, “He’s not just part of our school, he’s a pillar of our school that holds us up.”
And while the administration and faculty argue that Lawrence is involved in the school above and beyond what’s needed to be to fulfill his job description, Lawrence doesn’t see it that way.
“I just do my job,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t get so much done without continual support from Giles and his night supervisor Linda Hahn. “This is all teamwork—strictly teamwork. As long as they are willing to help me, I am more than willing to help them.”