“We do not give the janitors nearly the amount of respect they deserve and look at them almost as though they are our maids.”

Say what?

This statement was a hot contender for Labor Day, but Shakespeare had to win out. Nevertheless, food for thought.

I don’t actually know if a student of mine wrote this, because it occurred in an unsigned editorial in the student newspaper. I appropriated it because it was so amazing.

The editorial was a reaction to the fact that the university had out-sourced its maintenance jobs to a private company that had begun by firing all the old staff (no surprise, to those of us who’ve been around…). The writer lamented that dorm maids and janitors who had given the school years of service were suddenly out of jobs. He (or she) went on to say that students should be more aware of these people and of the work the students expect them to do, such as cleaning up dorm rooms and bathrooms after party weekends, with all that that entails. The charming part (not) of the editorial was the killer for me. The writer ends with a vast editorial shrug, words to this effect: Oh well, those people are gone, and the new people are here cleaning for us—things change, que sera sera (sing it with me), let’s move on, but remember to be nice!

Meanwhile, let’s look at the wording. Is the student making a sexist statement here (we should respect the male maintenance workers, the janitors, and not confuse them with female maintenance workers, the maids)? Or are we looking at a comparison born of privilege (we should give the school’s employees more respect, and not treat them with the casual contempt or indifference we lavish on our private employees, the maids employed by Mom and Dad)? Or is it a distinction generated by quantity (we should respect these people who clean up after all of us rather than acting as if they work for us individually)?

I’d like to laugh this off as another one of those sentences where the writer lost track of the thought and wrote a self-contradictory or circular statement. But I’m afraid that, whatever he or she meant, it was one of the choices in the paragraph above, and as such perhaps not a laughing matter at all.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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