There’s a story about a class of med students who are taking the final exam in a class where everything matters, as I presume is often true in med school.

In the story, the student-doctors study and study in anticipation of any combination of question. On test day, they are surprised to find there is one question on the test. One and only one. All of their medical knowledge comes down to a pass or fail.

What is the name of the woman who cleans this building?


In a pass-fail moment, the professor teaches the students that apart from science, book knowledge, and the ability to diagnose anything from a mile away, it’s important to realize that beating hearts belong to people.

Doctors who forget that there are people behind every symptom are professionals who may become widely admired and deeply disliked.

Know people. Know their names.

This weekend, I received an email from the principal of my children’s school. She wrote to alert the parent community of the sudden and tragic death of “Mr. Don,” the school’s custodian and grounds manager. Don was young and healthy, as far as we could tell, and there are no explanations yet for how he died.

Which is sometimes how it goes.

In an elementary school, as in any other social environment, there is an unspoken stratification system. The principal is at the top, of course, and everyone falls into place beneath that supreme authority. It’s perhaps easy to assume that the janitor, custodian, or grounds manager falls further down the list.

But any teacher will tell you that the person who keeps the building in order is one whom you want to befriend. When the thermostat in your classroom is on the fritz, when a ceiling light is strobing, or – travesty of all – when a child erupts with vomit during flu season, you learn all too quickly whom you cannot function without.

window cleaningIn one of my many comings and goings into the boys’ school, Mr. Don stopped me as he cleaned the windows in the entryway.  He said, “I want you to know, your son is very proud of you.  In the cafeteria yesterday, he told me he thinks you are as beautiful as a princess.  I thought you should know.”

This morning when I took my children to school, when we saw someone else shoveling snow from the path and sprinkling salt, one of the boys whispered, “That used to be Mr. Don.”

Indeed it was.

Mr. Don, we knew your name. You mattered to us. And we are thankful.

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