They are the housekeepers, janitors, and custodians who push a broom, a duster, a mop. They do the dirty work and are distained, ignored or looked at with a blind gaze. For some, their presence provokes feelings of guilt or superiority.
The new documentary ‘The Philosopher Kings’ takes us on a journey through the eyes of five custodians from varied backgrounds that work at different universities across USA. As their stories unfold, they show us the difference between having an “education” and possessing wisdom. These are universal mini-narratives of love and pain, hope and despair, and strength of spirit.
What becomes apparent is how comfortable the custodians are in their own skins.
“I think people’s perception of a custodian is like, they are there because they don’t have another choice,” Melinda Augustus, a custodian at the University of Florida, says in the film. She continues,“People will ask what do you do and if I say ‘I work at the university’ they ask ‘okay, what do you do out there?’ And I say, ‘custodian’, and it goes no further. I’m just a custodian… [but] I’m here in this custodian position because I want to be here. I like what I do. I like cleaning. I like the environment I work in.”
Another custodian, Corby Baker, who works at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Wa.: “Sometimes I talk to people and they won’t even look at me. I think most of them have a preconceived notion if they see you pushing a trashcan or dragging a mop bucket somewhere.”
A theme becomes apparent in Philosopher Kings: The custodians’ work is more to them than just pushing a mop. We see Baker creating art in his spare time. He says, “I saw an ad for a janitor and it offered benefits and it was at an art school. It’s not so much being a custodian or janitor… but about being in an element I’m at home… I’m excited about art again. Life should be about doing what you love. Even if it’s very difficult to do that.” Jim Evener is a custodian at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., who says this about his job: “It’s a learning opportunity every day. Whether it’s a fellow worker, a student or a professor. You can learn from every one of them. I’ve learned more the seven years I’ve been here than all the time I was in school.”
Adds the Vietnam War vet who is a bass musician in his off-time, “If you are miserable every day then you are doing something wrong. This documentary is about people who work hard. Award-winning producers Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick do a wonderful job of spotlighting the “artists, humanitarians and thinkers who clean up but do not study at some of the finest schools in the nation.”
Josue Lajeunesse has worked at Princeton University for almost 15 years. He goes back to his homeland of Haiti whenever he can. He works as a custodian starting at 7 a.m. and then as a taxi driver at night, getting just a few hours of sleep before he has to go back to his day job.
He sends money back to Haiti to support the six children of his oldest brother, who died. “It’s my responsibility,” he says. He also supports his other relatives: 15 family members in total.
With the money he has left from that, Laujenesse and another brother work toward a project for poor families in Lasource, a village in Southern Haiti where his dad used to live, to provide a clean water system for 25-30 families, the members of which are hungrier than ever.
The film pans to former president Bill Clinton, who is speaking at a University of California graduation. “When you leave here today do you have any idea what a job we’re leaving for the people who come here and have to clean this up and pick up after us? Do you have any idea what they make or how they support themselves or their children or whether they believe anyone ever sees them?”Josue Lajeunesse (Princeton University) “I’m a poor man but I’m proud of myself.”
Never late, even by a minute, Josue is often finished with much of his work before anyone even notices he’s there. And like clockwork at 3 o’clock each day, he’s on to his next job driving folks around Princeton, NJ in his taxi cab until the late hours of the evening. Though he never worked this hard in his native Haiti, he must maintain this intense schedule to support the 15 family members in New Jersey and Haiti that depend on him to get by.Corby Baker (Cornish College of the Arts) “Life should be about doing what you love even if it’s very difficult to do that. That’s the only thing that makes life worth living.”
Corby works as a custodian at Cornish in order to immerse himself in the creative energy emanating from the workspaces of the college where students labor away on their masterpieces. Surrounding himself in this creative energy keeps Corby inspired and excited about returning to his passion of “bringing things into reality that have never existed before”.Jim Evener (Cornell University) “If you’re miserable everyday, you’re doing something wrong.”
Jim was only nineteen years old when he was sent to Vietnam. He was out with his squad when they came under sudden attack and Jim was shot in the back. The next day, he woke up to find himself alone in the middle of the jungle, unable to walk. Needing to get to safety, he dragged himself through the jungle for three days until finally passing out. He regained consciousness in a hospital in Japan where he was told he might never walk again.Melinda Augustus (University of Florida) “My mom was the glue that held everything together and when that glue dissolved, everything fell apart.”
While Melinda’s mother was in labor with her fifteenth child, an oversight among the hospital staff sent her into a deep coma that she would never wake from. At age 9, Melinda recalls the day her mother was delivered to their home in the bed that she would remain in for the next 11 years before her passing.Oscar Dantzler (Duke University) “If you can’t keep the house of God clean, you can’t keep no house clean.”
As much an icon as the building he cleans, Oscar is not just the custodian of Duke Chapel but a caretaker of the hearts and souls of the Duke students who pass through it’s majestic archways. A loyal friend and mentor to his “babies”, as he calls them, Oscar acts as a guide of sorts through their years at the school.
As the filmmakers Patrick Shen (Director/ Producer) and Greg Bennick (Co-Producer) travelled around the country screening the film, they were continually asked about how people can get involved in the work being done in Lasource, Josue’s Lajeunesse’s village in southern Haiti. They were incredibly inspired by Josue and his efforts to bring clean water to the 3,000 people of Lasource. They have now partnered with Generosity Water to raise funds to construct the wells and cisterns needed to provide clean water.PhilosopherKingsTheMovie.com