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The Invisible Man Janitor

September 6, 2011

Tuesdays with MorrieWhen I was in high school, my pre-AP English teacher had us all read Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and write a report in the same style as that book about someone in our lives. Most people did one of their parents, so I guess that’s really super cliche, but when I chose to do my father, I definitely didn’t think much of it at the time, although now, it definitely doesn’t seem like a cliche thing to me.

(On the other hand, whenever people ask me that lame interview question, “Who is my hero?” if I answer with my father or mother, that is totally a copout answer. I am quite skeptical of the concept of heroes, although there are perhaps two people I could consider who break that skepticism…neither of which, unfortunately, is my father. [No offense dad; I love you too!] {Also, Carl Sagan and Mr. Rogers, while they seem to be pretty cool people, are not the ones who nearly break my skepticism, unlike what the earlier linked post might suggest}).

Anyway, like a lot of things in high school, I did the assignment relatively half-arsed. I don’t think I actually interviewed my father for anything of it…instead, I thought back to all the things he had said previously in various Dad Talks (formerly known as Death By Verbiage). (As an aside, I think I’m prefer archival research over, say, interview research across multiple subject lines…that’s a post idea on which I should elaborate, but I probably will never get to it.)

I will admit that in order to satisfy some of the requirements of the paper (the teacher wanted us to interview the subject of the report), I turned the archive of Dad Talks within my memories into recent interviews. It’s not like the teacher would be able to verify!

We had to prepare two forms of the report…one was a simple form that would go into our writing binder…this binder was where every essay we had ever written from 9th grade to senior year would be kept, only given back to us after graduation.

The second copy of the report would be put in some sort of presentation format…to be given to the subject of our interview.

…that’s why I would say the interview for me was not so cliche and mundane. As soon as I got the presentation-ready assignment back, I destroyed it. I don’t think I have ever had anything I didn’t want my father to read more, other than perhaps my journal (and I go through some extensive measures to make sure no one reads my journal, including developing a code/shorthand to write it.)

I have kept the graded copy of the paper…but I am generally too embarrassed ever to look at it. When I have read it, what has struck me is how much still resonates with me. I wrote of my father as a mystic, although the title of the report, Mr. Fun Fact (which was an old nickname we had for him) belies the seriousness of the content.

Invisible Man, by Ralph EllisonThat English class…sometimes, instead of assigning the entire class one book to read, she would split the class into reading different books, and then we would have to report in extensive detail to the rest of the class what we had read. The teacher gave some choice in the matter as to books we wanted to read…but I think she thought she was pretty clever. It just so happened that the black kids in the class happened to read Invisible Man or Native Son. I had to read Invisible Man.

Invisible Man was certain an assignment I approached in a half-arsed way. (Although later on, I read it a second time…only somewhat more seriously. Maybe I should read it again, now that I realize more fully how much of a precious jewel literary familiarity is?) I don’t want to make excuses, but the condition of the book I had was really off-putting…it was a paperback that was falling apart…the text was small and cramped, and the pages were brittle and malodorous.

(You may think I’m talking about something that should have no impact…but the strangest thing is that ever since getting my Amazon Kindle, I’ve really started enjoying reading…and I’ve gotten a lot faster at it, more easily engrossed within whatever text I’m reading. I now understand what everyone who love reading gets out of it. This wasn’t the case even three months ago, of course.)

…anyway, even though I must concede that I probably didn’t fully grasp what Ralph Ellison was attempting to convey (even after my two shots at the novel), the book has left some impressions on me (then again, wouldn’t any book you read — half-arsed or not — two times have the same effect?)

The impression that most sticks out in my mind is that the protagonist seemed to have some success…some visibility from the powers that be. At least, at the beginning. And things weren’t not as good as they seemed. In actuality, he was being used for others’ enjoyment, and when he became less amusing, he was cut off.

His invisibility, however, was not his death. Rather, he was still able to do quite a bit as an invisible man. Invisible people can cause trouble and not get caught. Invisible people can sidestep rules and no one will be watching them for long enough to punish them.

As I mentioned, I can’t say for sure whether or not I fully understand what Ellison was going for with the novel. I’d like to think I have a decent handle, but I have no confidence.

Nevertheless, recently I made a connection within my life…and within one of my father’s motifs.

The JanitorFather often talks about being the janitor. The janitor, too, is invisible. Or when he is seen, he is not regarded well. People are above the janitor. Yet, the janitor is an integral part of an organization, and he is extremely helpful to know. For you see…the janitor can cause a lot of trouble if he doesn’t do his job. Furthermore, he can cause a lot of trouble in a way that will not draw others’ ire to him. Invisibility is invulnerability. As such, the janitor position is an exercise in humility, discretion, and charity. The janitor serves; the janitor listens; the janitor remains silent.

I’m in a strange position in school. In the past year, I’ve had some pretty cool (and pretty visible) opportunities around campus. At the end of last year, upon learning that I would only be here for another semester, the people in power informed me that they would still keep me around — in an advisory role — before I graduated.

…yet, as the semester has started, I have come to realize that I have become invisible. I am not in the email discussions I would have expected to be in; I am not called to serve in the public positions I would have expected; my counsel and advice are not requested as I would have expected.

So this year I’m learning how to graciously accept this invisible role, learning how to take advantage of the very different, yet still very powerful set of capabilities that come with invisibility. Learning how to be janitor.

Ultimately, I do not regret all the assignments I completed in a half-arsed way in high school. I do not regret fudging the assignment requirements because I was too afraid (or maybe just too cool) to talk to my father. The only thing I regret is that I named my report such a whimsical title back in high school. Because now, it’s clear that a far superior title for a more precious project to understand my father (and in process, come better to understand myself) would be The Janitor Ideal.

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From → Dad Talk

One Comment
  1. I really appreciated “Invisible Man”, and I was glad it was on my high school reading list. I think the question of seen and unseen is very important. So much for so long was deemed unimportant and inconsequential. Anyone can be a janitor, so it’s not important. What voices are worth noting and listening to? Is ignoring a project or team member conscious or not intended?

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