My first administrative job was as assistant principal at Garden Lakes School for the 2000-2001 school year. During that year, I had the great opportunity to work with a most influential man thirty years my senior...the head custodian, Pilo Berrelez.
As I was lifting and carrying all the new textbooks in early August, Pilo offered his assistance. No thanks, I said, protectively wishing to keep this old man from back strain or more serious injury. Little did I know, that two weeks later, I would be at home recuperating from a hernia, and he would be finishing my book deliveries.
Pilo was the epitome of customer service. If I, even in passing, mentioned a task I was thinking of attempting, he would surprise me by completing the work himself before I would return to my office.
He worked hard to make the campus an inviting place for faculty, students and their parents. He arrived early in the morning to sweep the sidewalks. One morning, I arrived at the crack of dawn to find him buffing the sidewalks so they would shine.
Pilo went out of his way to talk to everyone. He greeted teachers. He comforted first graders. (He dropped everything once to fill the restroom soap dispenser for my daughter). He congratulated the basketball players on their wins. He escorted parents to conferences with their child’s teachers. He stopped to help teachers with odd jobs throughout the day and still managed to have time for everything of his “to do” list.
Sometimes, Pilo would get angry when the grass was turning yellow or when weekend warriors trashed the courtyard. Then he would just drop everything and make things right.
I was transferred to another school in the district at the end of that school year. But I visited Garden Lakes often. One morning I arrived early to visit with the school principal. After our meeting, I left the office and spotted Pilo picking up trash in the parking lot. He waved to me and hurried over to see how I was doing and to see if I needed help with anything. We spent a few minutes catching up on the events of our lives.
A few minutes later we were interrupted by a delivery man who had many questions. I grew more and more irritated with each subsequent question not because he had so many questions but because this man addressed all of those questions only to me just because I was wearing a tie and looked official. He practically ignored Pilo until I stopped him and said, “This is the man in charge here.”
An important lesson I learned from Pilo is that we all play a part in the success of our school. There are no subservient roles. We all exist to serve, support and celebrate one another. Custodians, aides, teachers, administrators...we are all on the same level. And we are all here for one reason: To support kids.
Pilo left this world a few months after that early morning visit. Although I had only seen him once or twice each year after leaving GL, he always welcomed me as a returning family member on each visit. I miss Pilo a great deal. As I grow in my role as an educational leader, I strive each day to be more and more like that wonderful custodian.