Night janitor pursues college dreams

Commentary by Ethan Caughey

Oct. 6, 2015

“Here” is a tricky place to explain. I’m in the city of Rockford, Illinois standing in the ID Pennock branch of the YMCA. It’s 2 a.m. and we’ve just finished cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors, and dusting every surface within arm’s reach. But the question the five of them have posed shoots deeper than my physical location. They’ve all grown up in the city and I’m a clear out-of-towner. They want to know why anyone would choose to move to Rockford to be a night janitor. None of my answers seem to satiate them, which is probably because I really don’t have answers.

Night after night, they ask me about college and why I dropped out. Antonio is especially interested, always asking about the kinds of classes I took and what I still remember in between bleaching showers. I’m the only one on the night crew that even made it to college.

I spent three years at the UW-Whitewater before dropping out with an unfinished journalism major. My outlook on college was only slightly better than my outlook on high schoolanother four years of being told stuff and wondering if any of it actually matters.

Immediately after dropping out, I realized why college matters. I spent two years filling out applications and never hearing back, walking into interviews only to hear I had a lack of experience and working a series of minimum-wage jobs without any hope of advancement. This realization only increased my bitterness towards the education system.

It’s been almost a year since I was a night janitor in a dust-ridden YMCA and I’ve found myself in a place I never thought I’d be: back at college. Each time I take a seat in a classroom, I remember one of the last conversations Antonio and I had.

About two months in, Antonio asked me if I ever planned on returning to college. My answer was a resolute “no.” He then told me of his life growing up in the inner city and the past 30 some years that led him to become a social worker. He asked if I thought I could obtain a job after graduating that would enable me to pay off debt. My answer was an equally resolute “yes.” He told me story after story of the people he interacts with who are too afraid to enroll in college because they’re convinced no one would hire them. For them, college would be a fast-track to the same systemic poverty they grew up with. And then Antonio spoke the words that would change my course, “Ethan, you have an opportunity that not everyone gets. Finish college and make this world a better place.”

I’m not sure how to make the world a better place, but I know how to finish college. For now, that’s enough.