"Hello, ma'am," he greeted me as he shyly peeked his head through my classroom door. He continued in heavily accented English. "I clean your room, yes? I come back later if you busy." I assured him it was fine and he pulled his long-handled push broom and a custodial cart up to the first row of desks.
His shy smile revealed a few missing teeth and crinkled his sun-weathered face as he removed his gimme cap. He ducked his head as he introduced himself as Mr. Silva. He lightly took my offered hand as I told him my name before he heartily tackled my trash cans and floors.
He was over 60 and I was a 22 year old first year teacher, but he always treated me with deferential respect. It took a while, but my talkativeness finally broke through his reserve and he shared a little more each afternoon when he came to clean.
He'd been employed by a local, massive ranch that was known for cradle to grave employment. Most employees were born on the ranch and lived in ranch provided housing in a worker's colony there. They were informally apprenticed in a branch of ranching arts when they were still very young, and worked their entire lives on that ranch, eventually retiring and living out their days in the same ranch provided homes, eating at a ranch cafeteria if they desired, and buying discounted groceries and other supplies at a ranch commissary. Many of them saw no need to finish school or to even become fluent in English, as Spanish was the de facto language of the workers.
The oil bust of the 1980's evaporated any familial ties the ranch felt towards the workers and when the budgetary belt needed tightening, many long time workers took the brunt. The were turned out of not only their jobs, but their homes, as well.
Mr. Silva and his disabled wife had no children and no experience outside the ranch, but he found them a small apartment in town and landed a job as a custodian at my school.
Fastidious in his appearance, he wore immaculate workshirts tucked into sharply pressed khaki pants, complete with vintage ranch workboots on his feet.
Our conversations continued into the next school year and I looked forward to his visits and stories, even when he gently chided me for not taking good care of the plants in my room. Every now and then he'd take one of the bedraggled, brown things home, nurse it back to health, and return it to me, robust and green. He explained the plants could hear, they had feelings, and I needed to not only water them regularly, but I needed to speak to them softly and lovingly, like I would to a baby.
He confided one day his regret was not finishing even elementary school. It embarrassed him to share neither he nor his wife could read. He wanted to learn, almost more than anything, but didn't know where to start.
It was easy fix on my part. I shared a few simple lessons with him after school and he took it from there. He practiced for hours at home until he could not only read, but devoured books. His tastes ranged from John Donne to Louis L'Amour. He was always reticent in discussing anything with me but books, and to that end we carried on spirited, lively conversations about author styles, literary devices, and what an author REALLY meant when he wrote that.
When I had my first child and returned from maternity leave, a brilliantly colored lantana plant awaited me in my classroom, a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Silva; one he'd grown from a cutting.
It wasn't long afterwards a stroke took him, and not long after that, his wife was gone, too.
The lantana has grown into a healthy, four foot tall shrub with sturdy branches, bedecked in vibrant flowers of yellow, orange, and pink in our back yard.
And every now and then, I go out to that lantana and speak softly and lovingly to it of English poets, western authors, and book lovers.