With light blue cleaning gloves hanging out of the back pocket of his blue jeans, Greg Davis, 63, strolled into the cafeteria of Martin Luther King Elementary School just before the mid-morning lunch rush.
In a few minutes, the cafeteria would be filled with the voices of raucous and hungry kids. The day’s lunch menu included pancakes, potatoes, and servings of veggies and fruit. And a carton of chocolate milk.
As the first group filed in for their 15-minute lunch, Davis, the school’s day custodian, stood by, a towering figure among a room full of five and six year olds. They have nicknames for him too — some yelled for “Mr. Greg!”
While the children ate, he helped out with random tasks. For the kindergartners, that mainly consisted of helping them reach the ketchup pump for the potatoes. While there are other staff members tasked with keeping the peace, Davis also helps resolve tattling disputes – of which there were at least two that day.
“Oh, they like to tattle,” Davis laughed.
But he’s used to it. He’s been doing the lunch gig at the school for 25 years. Some students are even second-generation students, the children of parents he watched over when he started.
Martin Luther King Elementary School
Location: 4801 Idaho St., Vancouver.
Number of custodians and students: Two custodians, one day and one night, with approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Salary: For the 2015-16 year, $21.29 was the allocated hourly wage for an elementary school custodian at Vancouver Public Schools, according to the Service Employees International Union’s collective bargaining agreement with the district. The wage has since increased. Greg Davis said last year, he made an annual salary of “almost $45,000.” Also, custodians who went through the Building Operator Certification program were given a raise, he said.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook: Washington is the fifth top-paying state for janitors with an annual mean wage of $32,830/$15.79 per hour. Overall, employment of janitors is projected to grow 10 percent between now and 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. New jobs are expected in facilities related to health care, an industry expected to grow rapidly.
Back then, they had a larger staff to help monitor the students, he said. They could zip to their half-hour-long recess as soon as they were done eating.
“Kind of makes it hard now because a lot of them get done and then get restless. They get loud,” Davis said.
But they do have a strategy. Near the end of the lunch, a jingle of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” played over a speaker. Dean of students Melle Soles flipped the light switch and lets the students know it’s time to get quiet.
Meanwhile, Davis stood poised in position behind a table at one side of the kitchen, which has holes that lead to separate bins. There’s one for children to pour out undrunk milk, another for trash, and ones for compost and recycling. His job is to help them put their trash in the right spot.
Davis put on his cleaning gloves before the students swarmed the table, quickly scraping and dumping ahead of an indoor recess, since it was cold and lightly snowing that day.
“It works out good. What they don’t know, they always ask me,” he said of the students’ sorting skills. “With composting, the younger kids have no problem. They’re like real good at it. It’s, for some reason, the older they get (they’re not as good).”
Different lunches, however, will produce different amounts of waste — such as the day lunch featured fish fillet sandwiches, Davis recalled. He chalks that one up to the school’s demographics.
“(King is) a little lower income,” he said. “A lot of those kids aren’t used to that kind of stuff.”
According to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 86 percent of King Elementary School’s students qualified for free or reduced-price meals as of May 2017.
‘Where the work was’
Between the loud clanking of silverware and the children’s giggles and shouts, Davis shared that grew up in Clark County. He graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School in 1974, and was one of 10 brothers and sisters.
Davis, a black man, said his family originally came from Clanton, Ala. His grandfather owned a sawmill there, where his father also worked for a time. But they left.
“The story I heard, was (my grandfather) got out of there because the (Ku Klux Klan) burnt it down twice,” Davis said. So the family “came where the work was.” His father, after World War II, worked at the Kaiser Shipyards and then for decades at the Alcoa aluminum plant. Davis said he also worked at Alcoa for 10 years before going to work for Vancouver Public Schools. These days, he owns a home near Lincoln Elementary School, he said.
At King, Davis has the quintessential custodian office space: an inconspicuous sort of closet with knickknacks and relics from past custodians. There’s an old boom box that he still uses to listen to sports talk radio on his breaks. He also has a small electric grill, which he uses to occasionally make hamburgers or even pork chops. An unopened container of instant ramen sat on a shelf.
He’s not in there too much, but gets a moment after students eat breakfast.
“Then I usually take a break, and I have free time in between,” Davis said.” Then, when lunch starts, I’m pretty busy until the end of the day.”
He goes above and beyond normal custodial tasks at the school, too.
“I’ve done everything here,” he said. Every year, he sings “Lifty Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was on Jan. 21. The song, written by James Weldon Johnson, was originally created to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and dubbed the “Black National Anthem” in 1919 by the NAACP.
“He cares about kids and he cares about people. I think that’s what makes him special at our school. If the kids need anything, he’s there. He’s a significant part of King history because he’s been here so long,” Principal Janell Ephraim said, adding that him singing is “about recognizing the different talents of all people on our staff.”
Back in the lunchroom, things were winding down around noon; only one grade, the big kid fifth graders, were left. They didn’t need help pumping their ketchup.
As much as he enjoys interacting with the students, he also enjoys the quiet time.
“It’s just me in there, it’s nice and quiet. It’s one of my favorite times of the day,” he said.
In June, this familiar setting will change. The school is moving out of that building. Students will spend one year at the current Peter S. Ogden Elementary School campus until a new building is ready in September 2020. Ogden Elementary’s students, meanwhile, will move to the new campus being constructed next door.
But that’s not the only change coming soon for this King Elementary School institution. After 43 years total of working, and overcoming two kidney transplants, Davis is looking ahead to retirement.
“If health care wasn’t an issue, I’d probably have retired at 60,” he said, adding that he wants to work until he qualifies for Medicare — though he plans to return to visit with students. “I know the principal wanted me to stay so she’s gonna get me for a year. ‘Cause I’ll be 65 and already got plans to stay busy.”