We all know how a superhero works. He or she has a nondescript, ordinary job -- as a reporter, or a desk jockey for an insurance company, or an attorney. When a crisis emerges, each of these special people, in his or her own way, transforms into someone far more powerful. They fly. Or burst into flames. Or become invisible. Then they save the world or simply one human being. If someone else is in trouble, they restore order and reaffirm, as the Superman comic used to put it: truth, justice and the American way.
Thanks to the endless sequence of movies based on these modern mythic figures, we're all familiar with the fantasy that within all of us awaits a superhero ready and willing to help others. Yet these comic book figures represent more than a feel-good fantasy, for me -- they create a picture, in broad strokes, of what each of us really can do in our daily lives. Every day, for each of us, no matter how routine our lives become, we have dozens of opportunities to make another human being's life better. For most of us, that might be nothing more than a smile while you hold the elevator door for that one latecomer. For others, it's a mission to get your own job done and yet change lives while you do it.
For the past 25 years, Trinity High School, in Euless, Texas, has been employing exactly this sort of mild-mannered superhero. His power is his totally human ability to hold his hand out to the students in his school. What drives him to offer them his hand is an amalgam of insight, compassion, wisdom and a willingness to help those who walk past him in the halls. His name is Charles Clark, and he's the janitor. For a quarter century, he's been reaching out to students and telling them that their lives matter, that they are loved, and that he's there to listen and help. He acts as their mentor.
As he told one CBS reporter, "They've never had a man tell them they love them before. Once they trust you and they know you love them you can get them to buy in to what you're selling."
One of the students he has helped this way, Jesse Walehwa told CBS, ""Mr. Clark has been looking out for me ever since I been here. I can tell Mr. Clark anything. I know he's going to give me his honest opinion. He's very wise, very loving."
He's become so good at this role as an untitled social worker that the school administration regularly refers him to students they believe would benefit from his attentions as a mentor. Peggy McIntyre has a master's in social work, and is one of the school's clinical counselors, yet she often defers to Clark. "He's worked with a lot of our students here who ended up going to college -- ended up doing really well," McIntyre told me. "He gets results, he sure does."
This story strikes me as a classic example of how each and every one of us can take any role we already have -- a job, a member of a family, a cell in a prison, you name it -- and create, beneath it, a double life dedicated to helping others. You sweep the hall, but you also stop to talk with someone who looks troubled or upset. You give half of your dinner to a little brother who went without lunch. You tip the Uber driver in cash, even though his charge to your credit card supposedly includes the tip. Clark has taken this sort of impulse and multiplied it by a thousand. He has perfected a superhero's double life to the point where his "secret identity" as a guardian of kids has become a second career -- in reality it's his most recognized role in life. He has proven that titles and salaries and status mean nothing when it comes to doing what matters most. Anyone can take any circumstance, any role, and use it to help others.
Students return to visit with him nearly twenty years after they were graduated from Trinity. On Father's Day, he gets dozens of cards from students he has helped -- who often come from single-parent homes.
In 2013, National Life Group, an insurance company headquartered in Vermont, recognized 10 individuals from schools around the country, for their work. Clark was one of them. As a nominee for Life Changer of the Year , he joined the other nine nominees for a gala banquet in Florida where he was recognized as the winner. As Grand Prize Winner for 2012-2013, Mr. Clark was awarded with $10,000 -- half of which was donated to Trinity High School.
"All my life, I've always asked God to give me a job where I can make a difference and help people," he said. "You going to tell me I don't have a good life?" said Clark. "This custodial thing is working good for me. I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me because I'm a custodian. You tell me that I don't have a great life? Charles Clark is the most blessed man -- excuse me, but I get emotional when I talk about my children -- on the face of this earth."
And to think, all of this, and yet his only superpower is the ability to hold his hand out to another human being. Does that remind you of someone else you know -- such as you, for example?