Schooled in Perfection

Custodian Paul Williams wields a dust mop, a walkie-talkie
and a smile for the students of Rock Bridge High School
Sunday, April 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:02 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

His name is Paul. Only the freshmen need reminding. Paul Williams can’t walk the hallways at Rock Bridge High School without hearing an enthusiastic, “Hey, Paul. How’s it going?”

Nobody knows how old he is — some say he’s in his 60s. Why ask? The students keep him young.

He once made an attempt at retirement, but retirement didn’t cut it after 20 years as a custodian at Stephens College. Paul was bored out of his mind: “All your friends at work, nothing to do. I watched so much TV, I got to knowing what they was going to do before they even did it.”

So three and a half years ago, Paul showed up at Rock Bridge. Now, with a broom, a dust mop and a walkie-talkie, he helps keep the place running. By 7:15 every morning Paul heads out to the main entrance for his favorite part of the job: “They let me raise the flag.” While the two other custodians raise a green and yellow Rock Bridge High flag on a pole near the school’s front doors, Paul, his Columbia Public Schools hat shielding his eyes from the morning sun, walks purposefully toward the school’s main flagpole, the one near the circle driveway.

He unfolds a flag of red, white and blue, careful not to let it touch the ground. He clips it onto the halyard and, hand over hand, briskly raises the American flag until it reaches the very top of the pole.

Paul enjoys the responsibility of properly raising the Stars and Stripes: It gives him a chance to welcome students to another day of school. And even though Paul had to drop out in the 11th grade to take care of his sisters, he’s the first to admit the importance of education.

As the buses and cars unload, he shouts hello and good morning to all the students. Then their school day has officially begun.

After the flag has been raised and salutation said, Paul pulls out the trash compactor, putting it in its place in the cafeteria, then sweeps and dusts the main commons to perfection.

The rest of Paul’s day is dictated by the calls that come over the walkie-talkie. UPS packages to deliver to teachers, a milk truck to unload, tables to be set up for student organizations or college recruiters, light bulbs to replace, spills to clean up: “They’re always calling for a spill.”

Teachers and administrators say Paul’s patience is unending, that he’s never been known to say, “I don’t have time for that right now” or “I can’t do that.” They know that regardless the weight of the boxes that need carrying or the size of the puddle that must be mopped, Paul’s smile won’t fade.

And, boy, how the students love him.

As he works, he passes them in the hall, in the gym, in class. Students know they can count on Paul for a “Hey, how’s it going?” even as other teachers are asking “Hey! Where are you going?”

Paul has a theory: “I’ve been there. They’re not bad, they just need a little guidance — they be all right.”

He keeps believing that, even when students who’ve skipped class, started a fight or committed some other misdemeanor are assigned to help him with his duties after school. Officially, custodial detention is punishment. Unofficially, Paul doesn’t see it that way. He loves his job and tries to make even unwilling assistants appreciate the joy of housekeeping.

Paul is simply a friend to the 1,500 Bruins. A friend who’s ready with a high-five as they head down the hallway to their next class. A friend who can’t wait to hear about what they did on spring break. A friend who always grins back no matter how many times he hears that call: “Hey, Paul!”

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