More than custodian, `Mr. Tony’ is students’ confidant

Arriving well before sunrise, Antoine Sadler is one of the few people to see Hawk Ridge Elementary School still and silent.

He has to start early to keep up with cleaning Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s largest elementary school, where almost 3,000 little feet tromp through each day and a soggy winter creates a red mud bog around 31 mobile classrooms.

By the time children arrive, Sadler has buffed floors, wiped smudges from glass doors and started coffee brewing in the teachers’ lounge. He’s ready to shift gears and become Mr. Tony, the man children line up to hug and high-five.

"Good morning!" he calls out to two sisters in matching outfits. "Look at y’all, pretty in pink, got your Barbie stuff on!"

The girls beam.

Hawk Ridge elementary school Charlotte perches on the brink of a painful transition. With the opening of a new school nearby next school year, this jam-packed elementary in the thick of south Charlotte’s growth boom will shrink from 1,488 students to about 850.

This week parents will find out which children get to stay and which will move. Central office staff will talk to teachers about finding new jobs.

Amid the tension, the children can count on Mr. Tony to keep up with who has lost a tooth or won a cheerleading contest, whose parents are coming home from a business trip and whose are being mobilized for war.

He makes sure the carpets are clean enough for kids to sit on and the teachers are greeted by shining floors.

Walking into a clean building is like putting on a new outfit, Sadler explains as he pushes a mop and tacks fallen artwork back onto walls.

"They say, `This place is clean. I’m going to have a great day.’ "

The heart of Hawk Ridge

Sadler, 40, was recruited as head custodian four years ago, when Hawk Ridge opened. The son of black mill workers, he wasn’t sure how well he’d fit in at a school where most students were white and well-off.At first, he felt uneasy when these tiny children threw their arms around him, wondering how that would look in an age of "bad touch" warnings.

"God put me on this earth," Sadler told himself. "God put me in this job."

If children needed hugs, he decided, he would welcome them. Before long, Sadler had become the heart of Hawk Ridge.

He knows children need people to look up to, and he has a few things to teach: No matter what you do, be the best. Never make excuses; just do your job right.

When he was a student at North Mecklenburg High School, a teacher assigned a paper about career goals. Sadler wrote that he wanted to be a school custodian.

The teacher, he says, chewed him out for mocking the janitors. But he was serious.

In seventh grade at Ranson Middle School, Sadler had been impressed by a custodian, also named Tony, who served as a source of quiet guidance to the kids. Ever since, Sadler had thought cleaning schools would be a cool job.

He tried other jobs — working at restaurants and school cafeterias, driving a school bus — before pursuing that path. Sadler was a custodian at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary, where his sons went to school, when a central office supervisor asked him to consider a move.

There was a new school being built in the Ballantyne area, and the supervisor wanted Sadler to apply for head custodian.

It wasn’t until he’d taken the job that Sadler visited the huge, upscale development shooting up in Mecklenburg County’s southern tip. When he walked into school in Charlotte Hawk Ridge, it was strewn with the detritus of construction, and school was about to start.

He got to work.

But most of all, a friend

Today Hawk Ridge has dozens of African American students, but that first year there were only a handful. Sadler couldn’t help feeling self-conscious.

His apprehensions quickly melted. A burly 6-footer in a world of children and women, he stands out as much for his size as his skin color. Students make running leaps to slap his upraised palm.

And his charisma trumps size and race.

He doesn’t claim to know every student’s name, but he knows hundreds, including former students.

"Chase, it’s so good to see you back," Sadler called recently to a middle-schooler walking in with a younger sibling. "How you doing? You making straight A’s?"

A small boy came over to tell Mr. Tony about his new Harry Potter game. A girl tried to hitch a ride on his hand cart, chattering about an upcoming father-daughter dance.

"I’m coming," Sadler teased. "I’m going to do the hokeypokey and turn myself about."

Every year, Sadler serves as the school’s Santa — a fact that in-the-know first-graders are still giggling about more than two months later.

Once, a white student told Sadler that his mother said Santa wasn’t black.

"Maybe not in your household," he responded, "but in my household, there’s a black Santa."

The next day the mother came in, apologizing profusely. Sadler told her he wasn’t upset; he just wanted her son to learn something.

Sadler can talk about anything kids care about, but his forte is sports banter. Mr. Tony’s obsession with Duke University sports has become part of the Hawk Ridge culture; there’s even an annual Duke Day, when Sadler displays his paraphernalia.

Sadler didn’t go to Duke; he just decided to buck the trend when his friends rooted for Carolina. But his devotion is as fierce as any alum’s. Children showing up in Carolina jerseys can count on a razzing from Mr. Tony.

"Didn’t I tell your mother not to send you to school in that stuff?" he growled at a grinning young UNC fan.

No room for excuses

That doesn’t mean Sadler leans on a broom making chitchat. He’s in motion from the start of his day — officially 6 a.m., but sometimes as early as 4:30 — to the end, which can be as late 9 p.m. when he stays to close up after evening events.

He’s supposed to have four custodians working for him, but at the moment he has two.

Sadler doesn’t make excuses, and doesn’t want to hear them. Yes, little fingers smudge the glass moments after it’s wiped clean. Yes, children moving in and out of mobiles track mud onto fresh-mopped floors. And yes, you could get by with a half-hearted vacuuming of dark carpets — but why would you, when children sit there for circle time?

Sometimes Sadler breaks away to spend afternoons and evenings with his wife and two sons, who now attend Robinson Middle School near Hawk Ridge. But just as often, he swings by Hawk Ridge on weekends to catch up.

And when Hawk Ridge elementary school Charlotte North Carolina students ask Mr. Tony to come to their soccer games, dance recitals and cheerleading competitions after hours, Sadler says yes — and does it.

Sadler talks about retiring at 45 and fishing at Daytona Beach. He admits that’s unlikely to happen, given the size of his savings and his hopes that his boys will be starting college by then.

Cleaning a school may not be the fast track to riches, but Sadler swears he’s living his dream.

"I get paid every time one of those little kids come up and hug me."

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