The definition of custodian is “a person who has responsibility for or looks after something.” When it comes to Mr. Jesse Peña, Head Custodian of Bonham Academy, who has been with the school since 1997, the definition is more personal: he is custodian of our kids and of our school community.
The hundreds of families who have passed through these halls know him not just as the person who takes care of the building, but as the person who greets them the first time they walk in the door, the person who offers support and encouragement to every student. He’s the man who sings and whistles through the halls; who, if he sees that a student may be sad, notifies the counselor so they could intervene if necessary.
Miss Shimi, an arts educator at Bonham for many years, calls custodians like him the “unsung rock stars of a school.” Like most of us at Bonham, she identifies him as part of the fabric of the school itself: “Hardworking, caring, loving and funny.”
Mr. Peña was raised in Laredo in the 60s. After finishing high school in 1968, he did what was common for struggling youths in the 60s and 70s: bummed around the streets, had odd jobs, partook of recreational drugs. At age 29, he learned he was to become a father, and decided that he wanted his child to grow up in a different world. He went to a shoe store and asked for a job, then spent the next 20 years selling shoes at Kinney, Thom McCann, Shoe World and others. This experience in the retail industry, particularly in customer service, instilled in him many values: the importance of productivity and accountability in your work, but also the importance of “serving the customer.”
When he came to SAISD in February 1997, first as a rotating custodian, then in May to Bonham, he embraced the idea of serving the customer. For Mr. Peña, the staff, the parents, and, most importantly, the students were his customers. He said, “I’m here for them.”
That commitment to his “customers” has kept him at Bonham for most of the past 18 years. He says working there has been “enlightening and refreshing; being around young minds keeps you open.” He sees his younger self in some of the kids. Asked which ones, he got a sparkle in his eye, smiled, and said, “The active ones, the ones who get into trouble.” He noted that an 8th grader whom he’s known since kinder, who hasn’t exactly been the model student, is a kindred soul. And there’s Maddie Toland, third grade: “She has a wild spirit, but look into her eyes and you see a gleam that’s special. That makes me happy.”
This year, Mr. Peña will be taking his much-deserved retirement. He’ll spend time with his daughter and son and his five grandchildren. He’ll continue to write poetry. And fret not, he has signed on to be a substitute teacher for SAISD. The teachers at Bonham have already said he’ll be the first person they request. His shoes will be difficult to fill – Bonham won’t be the same without him.
- Cherise Rohr-Allegrini