The Janitor’s Boy by Andrew Clements (2000) is the story of Jack Rankin, a fifth grader who takes revenge on his father for embarrassing him at school. After Jack’s plan backfires, he gets to know his father as a real person rather than as just his school’s janitor.
At the beginning of The Janitor’s Boy, Jack covers the bottom of a desk with thirteen pieces of chewed-up Bubblicious watermelon gum. He revels in the fact that the janitor, his father, will have to clean up the mess.
Jack is not normally the sort of child who misbehaves. His gum caper is an act of revenge. Ever since Jack was in second grade, kids have made fun of him when they found out that his dad, John Rankin, is a janitor. Jack is now in fifth grade, and all of the middle-grade kids in Jack’s town are temporarily going to school in the old high school, which John maintains. Since the beginning of the school year, Jack has worked hard to avoid his dad. But one day recently in Jack’s math class, a kid threw up all over the floor. John came in, scooped up the vomit, and disinfected the floor. When this embarrassing job was finished, he looked over at Jack and—in front of everyone—said, “Hi, son.”
Jack should probably be mad at the spoiled, rich kids who made fun of him because his dad is the janitor, but those boys are just a couple of jerks and not really worth Jack’s attention. His dad is the main cause of his problems, so he bears the brunt of Jack’s anger. Nobody sees Jack vandalize the desk, but the principal, Mr. Ackerby, is determined to find the culprit. It takes Mr. Ackerby just a few minutes of detective work to find Jack, whose guilty expression and watermelon-scented hands give him away. Jack knows he is caught, so he confesses.
Mr. Ackerby demands to know why Jack did what he did. Jack is not good at talking about his feelings, so he cannot explain himself. Mr. Ackerby does not know Jack and has no idea that he is the son of John the janitor. Mr. Ackerby writes two notes, one to Jack’s parents and the other to John. Every day after school for the next three weeks, Jack will spend an hour cleaning gum off of desks—beginning with the desk he messed up today.
After school, Jack faces his father, who is surprised that Jack stuck gum all over a desk. He does not yell at Jack, however. He simply explains how to clean up gum and sets Jack to work on the desk he vandalized. Jack spends a full hour cleaning the desk, getting himself covered in gum in the process. When he is finished, he runs outside and catches the late bus so he will not be seen riding home with his dad.
Jack knows he is in big trouble, and he expects a second punishment from his parents. There is no way he can hide what he has done, so he gives the principal’s note to his mom, Helen Rankin, as soon as she gets home from work. As Helen reads the note, she is careful not to show any anger. She does not know exactly why Jack vandalized the desk, but she suspects it was a problem with John.
Helen sends Jack to his room and reflects that she wishes she could make her son understand her husband as well as she does. Helen has known John Rankin since high school, when he was a “golden boy”: a smart, well-to-do kid with a bright future. Everyone expected John to go to college and have a rewarding career. But two months before he graduated high school, John joined the army and left town. Helen did not understand his choice at the time, but she does now. She knows that only John can explain himself to Jack, and she feels trapped between her loyalties to her husband and to her son.
When John gets home, he and Helen discuss Jack’s behavior. John says he thinks Jack must be mad at him, and Helen agrees. Together they figure out that Jack is embarrassed to have a janitor for a father. John feels bitter about this because he knows his work provides for Jack’s needs. More than that, however, he feels helpless. He does not know how he should respond to what Jack has done. John and Helen decide against punishing Jack further, but they both know the issue is not over.
The next day, Jack is getting a bucket out of the supply closet when he finds a cupboard full of keys—all the keys to all the rooms in the entire school. Jack does not think of using them to steal or damage property. He sees them as an opportunity to explore. He takes two keys, those labeled “BELL TOWER” and “STEAM TUNNEL.”
After scraping gum off the desks in the library for an hour, Jack leaves a note for his dad. He says he missed the late bus and wants a ride home at five. In the meantime, he makes his way to the bell tower. He has no idea what a steam tunnel is or where to look for it, but now he wants to see the view from the highest place in the school. Jack sneaks through the tower door and climbs to the top. He looks out at the town and finds all the places he knows.
The view gets Jack thinking about his parents and how they have lived in one place their whole lives. He vows not to stay in town as they did, but to go to college and move somewhere more exciting. He cannot help doubting himself, however. He is the son of a janitor, and now he is stuck doing janitor work every afternoon. What if he ends up just like his dad? Jack sits down and makes a long list of differences between himself and his father. After he fills a whole page, he feels a little better. He does his homework in the tower until it is time to meet...
(The entire section is 2245 words.)