I used to be tater-tot champion of the lunchroom

James - Burlington, Vermont
Entered on April 24, 2008

I used to be a teacher…a science teacher, actually. And everyday I taught, something amazing happened. If it wasn’t exploding volcanoes in the parking lot, or watching tadpoles turn into frogs, then it was the time I was crowned tater-tot champion of upper-school lunch. However, when I left my teaching position to become a carpenter four years ago, I knew it would be tough to match this sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in my work.

A few months ago, I started building a handicap accessible bathroom on the first floor of an 1860’s farmhouse in a small Vermont town. The wife, Mary, was a woman in her seventies, incredibly cheerful and full of life… never without a smile on her face. Her husband, Henry, on the other hand, was nearing the end of a losing battle with Parkinson’s disease. While his mind was still sharp, his body was rapidly deteriorating. Accepting this fate was devastating to Henry as his wife confided in me one afternoon, “You know, it really upsets him to see this work being done…but there is nothing else we can do.”

As a result of his condition, Henry was no longer capable of accessing the bathroom on the second floor without a great deal of assistance from his wife. Using the bathroom, taking a shower, and even brushing his teeth had now become terrible inconveniences. This tremendous sense of despair and the inevitability Henry’s situation also weighed heavily on me. Working everyday while Henry looked on served as a constant reminder of just how cruel life can be…and I was miserable.

On the last day, just as we were putting the finishing touches on the bathroom, Henry poked his head in to have a look around. He walked over to the sink, and with a shaky hand, turned on the faucet. Splashing his hands under the cool water, he caught his reflection in the mirror and smiled. He then turned around to investigate the new toilet. He flipped up the lid and gave it a flush. As the water swirled around the bowl, he smiled again. With a little effort, he then shuffled over to the new shower. Like the sink and the toilet before, he turned the handle and watched the water splash on the shower floor for a moment before he shut it off.

I watched while he finished his inspection, and in that brief moment there was a life in his eyes that I had never seen. In that moment, I realized the impact of my work. All this time, I had a wrenching and sorrowful feeling in my gut about finishing this bathroom for a dying old man. What I failed to see was that for the first time in a long time, Henry could now turn on the sink, use the toilet, or take a shower without having to ask for help. It was a sense of dignity, responsibility, and independence that he probably had not felt in years. With a rare smile and a nod, Henry left us to finish up.

Whether it is building a new bathroom for an old soul, or shoving 14 tater-tots into my mouth while “supervising” my lunch table, I had rediscovered that sense of purpose and pride in my work that can turn an ordinary job into an extraordinary experience.