A few years ago I was at a writing convention and about to go up to a well-known LDS writer and tell her how much I had enjoyed her last book. As I was on approach, I was close enough to hear her say to her companion, “Let’s get out of here before people start coming up to me.” I changed my trajectory, trying to make it not look obvious, like when you start to wave at the wrong person and then pretend you are straightening your hair. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by fawning over someone who obviously had heard it all before. Now granted, I have never been so sought after and mobbed that I have felt a need to dodge my fans, but right then and there I told myself that if becoming that well known meant having the attitude that fans–the reason for anyone’s success in the first place–were an annoyance, I never wanted to be famous. So far, so good.

It is always amazing to me how some people can accomplish great things and have accolades heaped on them and still keep the common touch, while others seem to exude self-importance like an overpowering expensive perfume applied a little too lavishly. I recently had such an encounter. I came away wishing I’d had the courage to ask the woman one simple little question. “Do you know the janitor’s name?”

In thinking about that, I was trying to remember the story of the teacher who put a question on a test asking students if they knew the janitor’s name, as a reminder to them never to become so self-important that they did not acknowledge those many consider the lesser people around them. My search of the internet pulled up a reference to that story from a marketing company, suggesting that in business it is always important to acknowledge the service people because they, too, are part of the company and their contribution is important. The sparkling clean floor of the restaurant means more people want to eat there, therefore, it is always a good business practice to acknowledge the janitor. If he feels appreciated, he will do a better job, and it will help your company have a better image, leading to more sales and greater profits.

Okay, so they likened that story to their industry and made their point, but in my mind that isn’t why we should know the janitor’s name. We need to know the janitor’s name because he is a person with hopes and dreams, with challenges and triumphs, perhaps with a wife and children. He is a person often overlooked as less important for whom a small bit of recognition or gesture of friendship could go a long way.

Many years ago I visited with my mother after she came home from a day’s work at the large printing company at which she worked. There had been an accident and the janitor’s young son had been killed in an accident. The employees took up a collection to help the family, led by my mother. At the end of the day, she was very discouraged as she told me that the donations averaged out to about twenty-five cents per employee. She sadly told me that a couple of weeks previously they had passed the hat for donations toward a wedding gift for the owner of the company’s daughter, a girl no one knew personally, and that many people had written out personal checks for large amounts to go into the envelope with the card. Eventually my mother’s efforts led to several hundred dollars for the janitor’s family, but not without some teeth pulling.  Even in our giving, which should be one of our more refined and pure practices, we sometimes allow our natural man to govern.

In a law office where I used to work, one of the secretaries lost a newborn baby. She and her husband were trying to raise the money to fly across the country to bury the baby in their hometown. I watched as one of the attorneys for which this secretary had worked went from office to office shaking down wealthy attorneys. “Five bucks, Bob? You’re so rich you don’t even bend over to pick up a five dollar bill if you see it on the ground. You can do better than that.” Like my mother, her efforts paid off, and they were able to make the trip and cover the expenses of a funeral for their baby. And I gained a new respect for that attorney who took several billable hours out of her schedule to do an act of service for someone who worked for and with her.

As I gave a small Christmas bonus to the lady who does the yard work for our vacation rental house, she thanked me and commented that it is her wealthiest clients who give little or nothing. We discussed that for a few minutes. I told her that maybe it is because they have never lifted up the couch cushions in hopes that a few dimes and quarters had fallen out of pockets and were adding up—a poor man’s savings account. Maybe they have never struggled to come up through the ranks, or if they did, it has been so long ago that they can’t remember what it was like to struggle.

Take Ownership

Ponder for a moment even the figures of speech we often use. “My doctor. My lawyer. My professor.” We often take ownership of those we perceive as being important. One might also argue that we take ownership because we see the same doctor each time, while we may have a rotation of service people. But even when we have the same service people, have you ever heard anyone say “my janitor?” 

Some people, like my mother, don’t only know the janitor’s name. She knows the name of his wife and children, and she knows which of those children plays soccer and which one wants to take violin lessons. She knows which car he drives and may even know where he lives, because she gave him a ride home once.

My mother is getting old. One of these visits with her is going to be my last. I imagine then that she’ll be in another realm standing in a line, a line where some who thought they were first are going to be last. They will whisper among themselves.

“Who is she? What’s she doing at the front of the line?”

“I don’t know who she is, some little farm wife from a small town in Idaho. Look. She’s still got a piece of hay stuck in her hair.”

One of them will tap her on the shoulder and she will humbly step aside to let the important people past. Then the clouds will open, and she will be called by name and one of the people behind her will be bold enough to ask. “Excuse me, what is she doing ahead of me in line?”

And a gentle voice will answer, quite simply. “She knew the janitor’s name.”