OPINION: In a school where character matters, a custodian bubbles to top

The marquee at River Trail Middle School in Johns Creek recognizes the kindness of Sayed Naqawe. (Gracie Bonds Staples / Gracie.Staples@ajc.com)

Credit: Gracie Bonds Staples

Credit: Gracie Bonds Staples

The marquee at River Trail Middle School in Johns Creek recognizes the kindness of Sayed Naqawe. (Gracie Bonds Staples / Gracie.Staples@ajc.com)

Lindsey Keown noticed. So did Joanna Smith and hundreds of others at River Trail Middle School in Johns Creek.

From the moment he arrived in 2017, Sayed Naqawe became fully engaged in the lives of those around him. Strangers at first, he learned their names, he asked about their day and their families. Often when he learned there was a need, say to assemble office furniture or erect signage, he volunteered even though neither of those things was part of his custodial duties.

“He always wants to know about other people’s lives,” said Keown, a language arts teacher. “Not in a ‘Hi, how are you?’ way. He stops to listen to you and share. I think that’s rare.”

It’s so rare in fact, school administrators made the deliberate decision years ago to not just teach students the fine points of reading, writing and arithmetic, but to emphasize the importance of character, too.

Every month, they chose a character trait to highlight, said Guy Crotsley, an assistant principal at River Trail. Traits like generosity and perseverance, honesty and, yes, kindness.

“Regardless of what you learn in school, being kind takes you wherever you want to go,” Crotsley said.

If you’re anything like me, you harbor a long-standing belief in the power and strength of kindness. It is one of the invisible currencies of happiness, health and success in all areas of our lives.

It is that thing poet Maya Angelou speaks of when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I’ve often felt too many of us have forgotten that.

And so when I passed River Trail on a recent walk, I was struck by its marquee announcing the selection of Mr. Sayed Naqawe as the school’s Professional of the Month for Kindness.

How rare is that, I said to my husband, and snapped a photo of the marquee. Not only did I want to know more, but I wanted you to know. There are still people in this world who believe in the power of small kind gestures like a heartfelt hello.

At River Trail, Crotsley told me they like to recognize the character of both their teachers and professionals like Naqawe.

“We take nominations, narrow it down to who gets the most and then our staff and students vote,” he said.

In November when the school began taking nominations for kindness, Crotsley tallied 300 nominations, the most for any of the character traits to date.

Sayed Naqawe is shown in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, at River Trail Middle School. (Courtesy of River Trail Middle School)

Credit: Photo courtesy of River Trail Middle School

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Credit: Photo courtesy of River Trail Middle School

And though Naqawe’s name has popped up for more than one of the traits, he garnered the most nominations for kindness, winning the popular vote in a landslide.

Custodians, Crotsley said, are each tasked with managing 30,000 square feet of space. Naqawe does that and more, all the while showing genuine concern for fellow professionals, teachers and students.

“It’s just who he is,” Crotsley said.

Naqawe said he’s simply his mother’s son.

“I learned from her,” he said. “She would do anything to help others.”

Naqawe, a 50-year-old father of four adult children, including two University of Georgia graduates, told me he immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan with his mother and three siblings when he was just 15.

It was 1985, several years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The family was no longer safe.

“We left everything behind and came empty-handed to New York,” he said.

He left there in 1994 after visiting Georgia and discovered Southern hospitality was more in keeping with the small town of Helmand where he grew up.

“In New York, people don’t talk,” he said. “That’s why I Iike Georgia better.”

When the job he’d had for 20 years started handing out pink slips three years ago, Naqawe lost.

A temp agency sent him to River Trail. The school hired him full time, and he has been there ever since.

One day last month, teachers suddenly started offering their congratulations.

Naqawe had no clue he’d even been nominated.

When he found out, it was a total surprise.

“All the teachers were so nice to do that,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy who appreciates everybody.”

And everybody noticed.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.