Cleaning with care: a profile on custodian Steve James


Noah Frank

Beloved by many, unnoticed by others, Steve James is one of Wilson High School’s most underappreciated employees. Constantly sporting a unique blue hat, James has worked as a maintenance worker at Wilson for 10 of his 20 years in the custodial field.

A DC native, James grew up going to school in the very system he now works for, having attended Aiton Elementary, Kelly Miller Middle School, and eventually H.D. Woodson. After graduating high school, he went down to Langston University in Oklahoma for two years before coming back to the District to start his work as a custodian.

Before he began working at Wilson, James was assigned to Anacostia, Coolidge, and Ballou. However, he insists that his favorite has undoubtedly been Wilson due to both the school environment and the opportunities it presents to students. “Wilson has the best teachers, best students; the students are more disciplined here. There are more activities for them to do than at the other schools that I worked at. I think this is a privileged school to be going to.”

Much of James’ job consists of maintaining a clean and safe school environment. His regular day consists of emptying trash, cleaning classrooms and dusting. He said that very few parts of his job are difficult, but it keeps him busy nonetheless, occasionally even bringing him to Wilson on weekends.

Though he is called a “maintenance worker,” James does much more than just clean around the school building. He considers it his responsibility to set an example for students, serving as their friend and mentor. “I know a lot of kids around here personally. I deal with them, try to show them the right things as far as their grade point average — especially guys who are on the football team, or baseball team, or the basketball team. I tell them they can be the best athletes out there on the field, but if they don’t have the proper grades they won’t amount to anything.”

James’ guidance has had a lasting effect on many students even after they have graduated. He is always excited to talk to alumni who come back to visit Wilson. “Ones who have graduated and come back, telling me how right I was about telling them things, and they’re doing pretty good now.

While he generally has good relationships with Wilson students, James admits that there  is work to be done on their end regarding the welfare of the school. “The biggest issue is that the kids need to start helping out around the school, you know, as far as keeping the school a little cleaner.” However, James does have a few suggestions regarding how students can ameliorate their treatment of the building, namely the promotion of the Recycling Club. “You got a few kids that participate in the recycling program; they get community hours and stuff like that. You need more kids involved in that program.”

Though James seems content with his job at Wilson, he has plans for the near future to pursue his dream of owning a fried fish restaurant. “I think I’m gonna stay here at least three or four more years. Then I’m going to open me up a restaurant frying fish. ‘Steve’s: Get Your Fish and Get!’” •