Stanford English Tutoring program Helps Make a Janitor Less Invisible

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 26 14:08:47 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

January 26, 2005
At Stanford, Tutoring Helps Make a Janitor Less Invisible


DOROTEO GARCIA worked his usual morning shift as a janitor in the art
museum, set along the palm-lined promenade leading into the Stanford
University campus. Hours before the doors opened and the tourists arrived,
he moved nimbly in heavy work boots, well practiced in making himself
unobtrusive and being ignored. He passed amid the Egyptian mummy case and
Zulu beadwork, the silver dragons from China and the Rodin bronzes, all
those treasures, vacuuming carpets, mopping floors, dusting shelves,
sponging tables, emptying garbage cans, scrubbing toilets. He earns $10.14
an hour at a university whose students pay nearly $40,000 a year in
tuition, fees, and room and board.

Then lunch break came on this blustery January day and Mr. Garcia zipped
up his jacket and headed for his English lesson. Through the arches and
across the tiled arcades of the campus, this hacienda with skateboards and
latte, he reached El Centro Chicano, the hub for Stanford's Hispanic
students. Eric Eldon, the Stanford senior who tutored him, was waiting.
They sat in a small conference room with posters of Cesar Chavez, the late
leader of the United Farm Workers, and opened a binder of lessons. Today's
was titled "Making Requests." With his high rounded cheeks and hooked
nose, Mr. Garcia had a profile like something from a bas-relief at Chichn
Itz. Mr. Eldon, with spiky black hair, scruffy beard and very horizontal
glasses, looked more like a character from a Gus Van Sant or Richard
Linklater film.

An immigrant father, age 41, and an American-born student of 23, they bent
together over a list of "polite expressions" for a janitor to use with his
boss. They lingered over the phrase "Can I bother you?" as Mr. Eldon
explained that, yes, bothering someone is usually impolite, but in this
sentence meant something more like, "Is it O.K. if I ask you?" They went
through dialogues of a Stanford faculty or staff member requesting a
janitor's help. Before the lunch break ended, Mr. Garcia was on the final
page of the lesson, developing a more sophisticated kind of request - a
letter to the governor of California on the issue of allowing undocumented
immigrants to obtain a driver's license. Hardly anyone around Stanford
beside Mr. Eldon knew it, but Mr. Garcia had grown up in Mexico reading
the political novels and essays of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel
Garca Mrquez.  When you are a janitor in a university of affluence, a
university of soft hands, there are a lot of things people don't know
about you.

Bridging that divide was one of the major reasons for creating the
tutoring program at Stanford and several other campuses in the Bay Area.
Jointly operated by student volunteers, janitorial contractors and Local
1877 of the Service Employees International Union, the project brings
together as many as 55 pairs of janitors and students at Stanford. For
the union and its members, 85 percent of them immigrants from Mexico and
Central America, the English classes meet both immediate and long-range
goals. Learning even the rudiments of English can save a janitor from
being fired for not responding to a request he does not understand. With
some fluency, a janitor can get off the night shift and onto days. A
rank-and-file janitor can try to become a shop steward. An immigrant can
try to pass the citizenship test.

For the Stanford students, meanwhile, the tutoring provides a sense of
purpose and human connection that cannot be taught. Many of these
undergraduates won admission partly by doing "community service" for the
most cynical of reasons, to build their rsums. Their courses here resound
with the armchair radicalism of Orientalism, neocolonialism,
deconstructionism, white studies, critical race theory, queer theory, blah
blah blah. "There's a lot of privilege in this place and a lot of
ignorance about that privilege," Mr. Eldon said. "People are used to
having maids and servants. If they trash their dorm, they're used to
having someone else clean it up." He continued, "You can take classes on
all sorts of highfalutin political theories and trends. But to me, none of
them teaches as much as being connected to people outside of Stanford."

Fittingly, then, the tutoring program arose from an alliance between Local
1877 and Stanford students as the union was engaged in several bitter
rounds of contract negotiations in 2000. One outcome of the union's
organizing efforts statewide, meanwhile, was the establishment of an
educational trust fund, with employers contributing one cent for each hour
worked by each janitor. Local 1877 put its share of the fund toward the
tutoring system, both at colleges and high-tech companies (where paid
teachers lead the literacy classes). Most of the project's current budget
of $500,000 a year, though, comes from state aid.

IN the three years that Mr. Eldon has known Mr. Garcia, three years of
barbecues and soccer games as well as English lessons, the student has
crossed the actual and metaphorical divide between Palo Alto and its
hardscrabble neighbor, East Palo Alto. There, beyond 101 freeway, Mr.
Garcia splits a one-room apartment with his son Ernesto, a Stanford
janitor and community-college student. His wife and younger son remain in
Oaxaca. Mr. Garcia keeps his snapshots of them on the wall, and he keeps a
native Mexican cactus outside the front door.

Sometimes, in sentimental moments, Mr. Garcia writes poetry about the
people and place he left nine years ago. At a distance, it is easy to
remember the good parts, not the failed economy that sent him from high
school into the farm fields, from the depleted fields into town to sell
tools, and from town to El Norte.

After nearly four years of tutoring, Mr. Garcia has become at least a bit
less invisible. He has spoken to incoming freshmen as part of orientation.
He wrote an op-ed column for the student newspaper. And he has even
written a poem about his time on the night shift that is now part of the
curriculum for his fellow janitors. It reads in part:

He doesn't carry books or binders

He uses a mop and feather duster

Instead of a computer

he works with a vacuum

He keeps the university clean

while everyone else sleeps...

But now at one in the morning

a janitor dreams while awake

hoping for a better future

for his kids.

E-mail: sgfreedman at

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