A BELOVED CUSTODIAN GETS A WARM SENDOFF by Allison Weiss
Leonel Rocha, man of many hats, retires from Tuscan.
“CLAP, CLAP, Clap-clap-clap!”
The rhythmic sound of two hands together breaks through the constant chatter of about 100 kindergartners at lunchtime. The 5 and 6-year old students are hushed, still in their seats, dropping pouches of applesauce from their hands. They quieted down and sat up at attention – and with their hands only, signaled back the same rhythm in unison: “CLAP, CLAP, Clap-clap-clap.”
This ritual was the daily school routine of the head custodian at Tuscan Elementary School – Leonel Rocha. It was a ritual that commanded respect in an otherwise loud and rowdy cafeteria every day shortly after 2 p.m., when lunch was ending for kindergartners. He more or less performed some version of this clap five more times throughout the day, for each grade – helping kids recognize when it was time to finish their meals, pick up after themselves, and get in line to return to class.
In a school system that values its ‘clap-outs’ when grades line up and celebrates moving up ceremonies for those headed on to middle school, high school, college and beyond – Tuscan head custodian Rocha’s own clap-out came on June 26 after more than a decade in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
It was not until his daughter, who performed occasional information technology work for the South Orange-Maplewood school system, encouraged him to apply for a custodian position that he set foot in the district. When Rocha got a per diem job for the district in 2011, he jokes, “I went from pencil pusher to mop and vacuum.”
“I didn’t know what a custodian was. I thought you’d come in and move tables and that’s pretty much it,” Rocha says. He first worked evening shifts at South Mountain Elementary for two years, and eventually moved schools and got full-time employment, falling under the tutelage of Maplewood Middle School custodian Robert Wise, who recently retired from the school system after more than 25 years. “He was tough,” Rocha says, “But to me, he was a mentor. He brought me up under his wing.”
The evening shift meant Rocha had to clean roughly 20 classrooms – wiping tables, vacuuming rugs, and sweeping and mopping floors. “You know, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. I mean, and that’s your job every single day.”
When Rocha landed at Tuscan Elementary seven years ago, on the day shift starting at 6 a.m., he never looked back. “I open up the school. I turn on all the lights, make sure nothing’s broken or that pipes haven’t burst since the heat is on every night during the winter.” Speaking of winter, Rocha says snow days are just part of the job.
“If it snows, I have to come in from my home in North Arlington like two or three hours before school opens up to clean all the grounds and parking lots. The district comes in and plows but all the walkways have to be cleaned and salted, and often that’s just enough time to clean before a delayed opening.”
His Tuscan colleagues hold Rocha in high esteem. Third-grade teacher Kim Boryeskne recalls that whenever she needed help with broken desks, trapped creatures, kid spills or related child issues he helped immediately. Boryeskne adds, “I tend to get very anxious over vomit in the classroom and Leonel seems to know this so he literally makes the clean-up nearly ‘fun’ – I mean, what other human in the world can take a situation like that and turn it into laughter?”
As far as how Covid and education in a post-Covid world affected Rocha’s workload, it became more intense. But Boryeskne says it was bearable because “Leonel greeted us every single day with a smile and positive attitude. From helping us man the lunch situation outside and drag the tables in and out of the building every day once we reopened school, to walking around drilling sanitizer dispensers into the walls of our classroom, he never once stopped saying ‘Hi!’ to us and sharing silly antics.”
Custodians often wear different hats, and Rocha took that role both literally and figuratively, as he has been known to don crazy hats for years, much to the delight of teachers and students. Rocha says he has 85-90 hats, including a court jester cap, a reindeer hat, a Thanksgiving turkey hat, and everything in between. “I started wearing them one Christmas and people got a kick out of them and I saw what joy it brought people. I just kept wearing them.”
Rocha arrived in the United States as a young adolescent with his two parents and three siblings from the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago hidden in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rocha’s first vivid memory is taking a TWA flight for the first time to the United States, landing in Boston because it was the only direct route at the time, and piling into a checkered cab with his family, taking a roughly 220-mile journey to Newark, where his father’s uncle had found success. “I can’t imagine how much that cab ride cost,” Rocha recalls.
As a boy, Rocha knew no English. In middle school in Newark, he had a translator who was always beside him. “She helped me a lot,” he says. “I went to school for four years. I never went to high school or college because my dad said, ‘You know there are seven of us in the family and you’ve got to work.’”
That first job put a 14-year-old Rocha alongside his dad at a factory making luggage. Rocha’s dad, a dairy farmer back in the Azores, modeled a work ethic that affects him to this day, he says. A family man, Rocha’s father “did not know English but he worked every day. [He] always used to say, ‘Always do it right. Because if you don’t do it right, someone will always let you know. You’ll have to do it again.’”
Being a family man is exceptionally important to Rocha. “Five years ago, my wife, Patty, had breast cancer, stage four. And the support I received from this district, like get well letters, money for food – it was really unbelievable. And at the time I was pretty much the new kid on the block at Tuscan.”
Now, he says Patty is okay, though she takes daily medication. And even though Rocha, now 62, says he had a few more custodial years left in him, it was his wife that sat him down about a year ago and said, “Leonel, let’s try to enjoy ourselves. I know you love your job, but you know I’m here, so think about it.” That’s when he decided to pull back and retirement came into view.
As for what’s next, Rocha says much of his retirement will be spent at his beloved Cove Beach in Cape May, New Jersey, where he has been going since the 1980s with his family. “I’ve been going there for years,” Rocha explains. “And it’s pretty much like a second family down there, you know, and no one knows my real name because I was once nicknamed Maverick,” he says with a laugh.
Asked if he was absorbing the magnitude of leaving behind his school family, he paused, “It’s going to hit me,” he says finally. “It will hit me.” The thing he will miss the most is the friendship with the kids and the teachers. That sentiment is echoed by Boryeskne: “He talks to everyone and loves to make people smile. He says every day above ground is a good day.”
Looking back on his career, he says, “I met so many different parents and so many different kids in my lifetime, I would have done this job, you know, 50 years ago.”
Allison Weiss is a former television news producer and current communications executive in New York. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and son.