Random memories, or maybe not so random. Maybe it’s all the talk about dumpster fires. A metaphor I don’t think I ever heard before 2016, but now it’s all we can say. We just walk around dazed, glazed, and when we bump into each other we say, “What a dumpster fire.”
Back when I was in elementary school in central Virginia in the 1960s, every day was a literal dumpster fire, which I do not remember as being anywhere near as bad as a figurative dumpster fire. The garbage was collected from all the rooms at Dupont Elementary School and carried outside, and either John or George lit it, and it burned. It was called an incinerator, not a dumpster. I guess that’s a key difference: there’s not supposed to be fire in a dumpster; that’s not what a dumpster is for. An incinerator is built for fire. Anyway, the smoke poured out. Seriously, this is how the garbage was handled. I don’t know how many years it went on. But that’s definitely the way it was in the mid to late 1960s.
George and John. The janitors. We children loved them, and they were good to us. Many of us took our lunches from home, and sometimes our mama had screwed the lid onto our thermos too tight, and we couldn’t get our milk or our soup out, and we told the teacher, and neither could she, so she said, “Ask John to help you,” or “See if George will help,” and we spotted one of them mopping or cleaning up or feeding trays and dishes onto a conveyor belt and ran across the cafeteria to get them. “John, can you please help me?” And they always did, kindly, lovingly.
We children were all white, because the schools were still segregated, and John and George were black, or “colored,” we would have said then, which I guess is why we were taught to call them by their first names and found it natural to do so, though any white adult would be Mr. This or Mrs. That. I think I knew at least George’s full name; I think it was George Washington Hill. But I could be mistaken. If we got sick and threw up on the floor in the hallway or the classroom, as children will do, John or George would be there quickly to mop it up.
And they lit the fire every day. I wonder whether they ever dreamed of what our world would look like now. I wonder whether they ever imagined, as they set fire to our refuse, that they might eventually burn away the wood, hay, and stubble of an order that deemed them unworthy to be called “Mr. Hill” by small white children. I wonder whether they could have imagined a world in which schools were all desegregated and a black man had served two terms as president of the United States. And if so, could they also have imagined there might be a regression to an order, or a disorder, under which the next president, a stupid, racist white man, might spend four years defecating on the Oval Office carpets and urinating on the Constitution and cursing at the rest of the world and pleasuring himself before full stadiums of cheering and hooting admirers? Could they have dreamed that when it came time for him to stand for reelection, he would light a dumpster fire on a debate stage and openly call on gun-toting white-supremacist yahoos to “stand by” to come to his aid during the electoral processes?
Maybe John and George have both passed on now, but maybe not. I wonder. I wish I knew. I would love to see them. I would love to ask: John, George—do you see the mess we’ve made? Can you help? But no, they did their part, and more. They were servant-leaders, and they were teachers, though they were honored neither as leaders nor as teachers. If they have died, they have gone to their reward, and if they’re alive, they’re 90 years old and deserve their rest. It’s up to us now. We have to mop up our own floors and take out our own garbage, and the sooner we get to it the better.