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Mr. Rick stands in the back of the class. He's comfortable there. He has always been in the background, in the hallways, the cafeteria, the closets, the playground. He doesn't need a lot of attention to know he holds the place together. He's the custodian. He likes to think sometimes he's a friend.

The kids wave to him in the halls. They slap hands with him in the lunchroom. He gets the ball unstuck from the tree and hauls trash and catches snakes. If they fling cereal with their plastic spoon at breakfast, he just talks to them; he doesn't take away recess.

When something breaks, a teacher says, "Who wants to go find Mr. Rick?" and every hand goes up.

Now the teacher is motioning to him to come up to the front of the room.

He's nervous. He bought new clothes for the occasion, left his jeans and his ball cap and his enormous key ring behind.

The teacher introduces him to kids he already sort of knows.

This is Mr. Royce, she says.

Not Mr. Rick.

Mr. Royce.

He starts to speak. He tells the class he likes being the custodian, but he wants to do more. His voice is soft, so he tries to talk louder, but then he wonders if he's too loud. To his ears it sounds like he's yelling. He was never comfortable in front of a class, even in college, and that was 30 years ago. He wonders if he's making sense.

There's almost nothing at this school he isn't sure how to do, except this. And somewhere, in another part of the school, the water main just broke. But they're going to have to call the new custodian, Mr. Dave.

Mr. Royce is teaching.

Home of the Eagles

Being the custodian makes him proud.

He loves to roam around in his golf cart checking for stray limbs and trash. He loves that the five trees he planted on Arbor Day are thriving, and the two the Forest Service planted are dead.

He keeps the sidewalks free of mulch and the walls free of marks. He keeps the letters on the marquee out front spaced exactly right. He thinks the campus is the prettiest thing in the neighborhood, and that helps the kids feel good about coming there.

He is the first to arrive every morning, the only custodian there most of the day, the only one to call when something breaks. He handles every emergency, every surprise.

When a kid throws up, he's there with his funky-smelling absorbent powder. When they skate on the bar soap in the bathroom, he takes it away until they forget the game. He knows how much faster the cafeteria trash cans fill up on Styrofoam tray days than on blue plastic tray days.

The staff voted him noninstructional employee of the year twice. He doesn't wear the uniform shirt they issued him. He likes to wear an Alta Vista Elementary School T-shirt.

"I like being part of the school," he said. "I kind of made it mine."

He has worked at other schools. He was groundskeeper at Riverview High and, after that, he worked at another elementary school. For most of his 15 years as a school custodian, teaching never occurred to him.

"In the ritzier areas, it never clicked," he said.

When he came to Alta Vista, he watched the school claw its way from a D grade from the state to a C, then to a B. He was pulling for them, from the background, making sure the teachers got what they needed with as little hassle as possible.

"The administrators counted on me," he said. "I was part of every fire drill, every yellow code drill, when the AC goes down, when the water goes down, when there's termite dust in the classroom. If a desk is broken . . .

"It's a hard school. It's a hardworking school," he said. "I got real close to teachers when I saw what they did."

He started dropping by youth football practice on Saturdays, because his younger brother coaches there. He noticed that there weren't many dads around.

"A few uncles," he said, "some grandpas, maybe."

The kids he knew from cafeteria duty were thrilled to see him on the sidelines, desperate for him to watch them play.

He also noticed there aren't many men teaching elementary school. At Alta Vista, there are six on a faculty of about 52. There aren't many men in the building anywhere.

"You know, without really knowing, the kids need a role model," he said.

He protected them from beehives and stray dogs. He paid them little compliments. He gave them pep talks. He started thinking he could do something more.

"They're needy kids. They're city kids," he said. "They tug at you."

He was in his late 40s when he started picturing himself at the front of the class.

The intern

It wasn't the money. He thinks he'll make a little more as a new teacher than he did as an experienced custodian, but not much.

He has always been happiest in jobs where he feels like he matters.

After he graduated from Florida State University with a business degree in 1974, he went to work as an insurance claims adjuster in Washington, D.C. It didn't suit him. He felt like he wasn't really helping people.

When his father died, he quit and moved back to Florida. He had two weeks to find a job, so he started driving a Borden delivery truck. He made more money than he had in insurance and says he became one of the best and highest-paid drivers on the fleet.

"I was happy," he said. "I felt useful. I was serving a purpose."

But the Borden plant closed and he got divorced, so he moved to Sarasota to be closer to his brother and mother, who both work in the school system. He found a job as a substitute custodian.

He didn't know anything about groundskeeping until he started taking mowers apart and putting them back together. Teaching is just a different kind of challenge, he says, and challenges don't scare him.

Three years ago, with the other teachers encouraging him, he applied for a student loan.

He took classes at night and on weekends from Nova Southeastern University. Teachers and administrators helped with lesson plans and assignments. The principal cheered him on.

Some of the students in his college classes were younger than his grown daughters, and some of the theoretical classroom material seemed awfully removed from the gritty reality of education he'd come to know.

He already knew, for example, how to dodge a kid maneuvering for a hug by blocking with a high-five. He knew that parents can get combative, because he'd been asked to stand by at teacher conferences. He'd heard all kinds of horror stories from friends who teach at all levels. He wanted to do it anyway.

By December, he'd finished everything for his master's degree in education except the internship. He could have gone to another school where he would be anonymous, but there was only one place he really wanted to be.

The day before winter break, Sandy Goins told her third-grade class they would have an intern after vacation. She explained what an intern is: someone who joins the class for 12 weeks, watching first and then teaching. And she told them after lunch they would learn the intern's name.

"I didn't want them mobbing him at lunch," she said.

When they came back to class, she told them their new teacher would be Mr. Rick, the custodian.

Many of them just stared.

"They were real puzzled," she said, "They couldn't figure out how someone could be a custodian and then a teacher."

She told them anybody could do anything they set their mind to, and it was never too late to have a dream.

Then all the kids started to clap.

Keeping count

Paper feels strange. His hands are used to rakes, shovels, heavy leather gloves.

It has been almost a week, and it's going well, but there are a thousand little differences.

"My fingers don't work on paper," he says.

In the halls, some kids still call him Mr. Rick. Some catch themselves.

"What's your new name again?" they ask.

Like I got married or something, he thinks.

He doesn't kid around as much as he used to. He's a little more strict with the food-flingers at lunch. He tries to act more authoritative.

He's learning to count the children constantly. To juggle in his head who is out of the room on this errand or that. There should be 18. All day long, right along with Mrs. Goins, he counts to 18. Sixteen, 17 . . . 17 . . . Right _ Harley is absent today.

He still feels the urge to pick up trash when he sees it. He notices the cones in the front of the school are spaced a little unevenly today. He wishes he could help with the water situation, because he knows kids will ask for more restroom passes this week just so they can drink bottled water from a cup instead of city water from a fountain, that they like to hold down the button on the water jug just to watch the water spill across the floor.

But now he is focused on a boy named Marco Almaraz.

Marco is answering questions from a story about a fly named Herman, who flew around the world and had adventures for 14 chapters until he froze to death in New York City. That turn of events made Mr. Royce shake his head, but Mrs. Goins made a lesson out of it.

Marco runs his finger along the words as he reads. Mr. Royce kneels beside him, showing him how to find the answers in the story. That skill is a big deal on the FCAT, and third-graders have to pass the FCAT, which makes Mr. Royce, and everyone else, a little anxious.

"Do you remember the story?"

Marco shakes his head.

"Okay, so we have to go back. They didn't want us to go through and just guess."

Marco says he has known Mr. Royce since prekindergarten. It seems to be a point of pride to say you knew Mr. Royce back when he was Mr. Rick.

The boy in the next desk, Kelvin Cokley, points out that he has known Mr. Rick half his life. He is 10. "I think he's going to be a nice teacher," Kelvin says.

"He's always nice," Marco says.

"He must get mad cleaning up the throw-up," Kelvin says.

But after some thought, the boys agree they have never seen him lose his calm.

Mr. Dave the custodian comes in the room, to inspect the humming air conditioner. Mr. Royce doesn't even notice.

"Mr. Royce," Kelvin says, "I need help."

"Okay," he says. "I'll be there."

Mr. Royce's room

The class has moved on from the death of Herman to a story about Kathy and Linda and a sinking ship. It will be 10 weeks before they know whether Kathy and Linda drown or are rescued, and soon after that dramatic last chapter, Mr. Royce will go back to being the custodian.

His internship over, he will have to wait until summer to find out where he'll teach next year. The principal here is his biggest supporter, but she can't promise him a job. He'd like to teach third, fourth or fifth grade. And there's only one place he really wants to be.

Until the end of the year, he'll have his big key ring back, the one that lets him see the school the way no one else can.

It lets him see into every classroom, and in them, he notices things.

He sees what kind of work the kids do in each class. He looks at the motivational messages on the walls. He sees what goes into the trash and what is spared.

He notices what books clutter up the classrooms and never get used. How some desks are arranged in clusters for group learning and others are in neat, straight rows.

He imagines what it will be like next fall, how he will set up the furniture. He thinks he will have plants. He wants his room to be peaceful, calming.

He doesn't have it all figured out yet, but he knows he will only have one key, to one room, and that the name on the door will be his own.