At Stanford, Tutoring Helps Make a Janitor Less Invisible
The New York Times, January 26, 2005
by Samuel G. Freedman

Palo Alto, Calif. -- 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 Chichen Itza. 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 Garcia Marquez. 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 resumes. 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.

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