Meet the custodians


Max Potter

Custodian Leon Hawksley sweeps a classroom floor. during after school hours.

Jackson Wojnowski and Theo Fairchild-Coppoletti

Jeff, Aaron, Matt, Oliver, and Leon. These are the names of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) custodians, as Leon insists they be called. They are in our halls and classrooms picking up after us, listening to music, and keeping our school community clean and safe.

Our custodians are also artists, educators, and business owners. From recording heavy metal albums, to working with ‘troublesome’ teens, our custodians have lived fulfilling lives. 

Matt Burke, who started working for the school in April, grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, as one of twelve siblings, four of which graduated from high school. He spoke about one of his first jobs after graduating college with a degree in community leadership and development. 

“I worked for a while with families of murdered children,” he said. “I didn’t care for that. This was in my neighborhood off-island. Two of the first kids that were victims, brother and sister, were friends of mine.” 

“Back then, I was just too green. I didn’t have any real skills to deal with that [work], but over the years, dealing with the people I’ve dealt with, I have wicked skills now, mad skills dealing with people. I used to be one,” he added with a hint of his sarcastic humour. 

In part, Matt has acquired these skills from working as a substitute teacher and helping in the behavioral classroom at the Edgartown School. While there, Matt mainly helped kids on the autism spectrum, an experience which would help him moving forward. He also taught at the former Penikese Island School with teenage boys who were referred there by the Department of Children and Families.

“The young adults I was working with on Penikese had a lot of the same traits, they just weren’t diagnosed,” said Matt. “They were troublemakers, or they were bad kids, or they made bad choices. They had underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, which runs the executive decision-making process in the brain. They didn’t care about consequences.” 

While the Penikese Island School has since been shut down, Matt still spends his work days among the same age group of teens.

With regards to his current custodial career, he says, “I don’t mind this job. I don’t mind it at all. I love being around teenagers. Always have.” Despite self-claims that he has become quick to judge, Matt remains open and approachable, and this can be seen in his musical taste as well, which he describes as including “everything.” 

“I have jazz masters and soul versions of Christmas songs,” he says, showing off a jazz disc and Christmas cassette tape in his speaker on his cart. “Anything I can find. I have the Bulgarian State Women’s Radio Choir on the CD at home.” 

While Matt listens to everything and anything, Jeff Kurth, who can be distinguished by his long blond hair, copious tattoos, and stoic demeanor has a very specific taste in music: heavy metal. 

“I play drums for a heavy metal band [Omega Reign] off in New Bedford, and they had a number-one album in 2000-something. The album’s called Arise,” said Jeff, opening up about his musical history. 

“In the 90s, we were the only heavy metal band on the Island, and my last show, I thought, was my last time playing drums, which was 1992, and 27 years later, I found my old friend Geno, he’s the head of the band, and I took the album from him, and when I went to practice it, I couldn’t even keep a beat. I threw the thing across the room, waited a week, and then said to myself, ‘I’m gonna do this.’”

“As far as being a man of my word, we go and practice every Saturday,” he said. Jeff now goes to New Bedford weekly to practice with Omega Reign and says he has maintained a dedicated attitude throughout his life, from working the trades, to owning a store in West Tisbury, to his current job. However, he does wish he could have put this dedication towards his music sooner.

“For you guys, still being in school, I don’t know what you want to do in life, but do something,” said Jeff in a message that could apply to all MVRHS students. “Follow your dreams like I should have. Now I’m doing it at 50 years old.” 

 Regardless of this gap in chasing his dreams, Jeff remains rationally positive about life, from chalking up extra work from being understaffed as exercise to heaping praise on the love of his life to recently taking up some side work as a locksmith. At the end of our interview, he wanted to reiterate his message: “I want you all to graduate and go do something. Do what you love to do. Because if you’re doing that, you got it. And pick up after yourselves.”

Kids often don’t pick up for themselves. Sometimes, kids learn to respect the custodians the hard way. 

Leon, with a light and humorous tone, recounts a surprisingly powerful moment.

“A couple years ago, we had a kid who was caught doing graffiti on the bathrooms,” he said. “His punishment was to come work for us for the day, so they had him come with me. At the end of the night, I asked him what he had learned from this. I thought he was going to say ‘Don’t put graffiti on the walls,’ but he says, ‘I learned to respect the custodians.’”

This isn’t the only meaningful encounter Leon has had with students. “Some kid found out it was my birthday. He said ‘Happy birthday!’ and called me into the band room and like 30 Minnesingers started singing me ‘Happy Birthday,’ which just sprung tears in my eyes. It was so, so cool. It was probably one of the most neat, touching things that’s ever happened.”

While Leon has had many fantastic experiences with the students, he has had some leaning on the outlandish side as well. “We walked into a bathroom once because a kid went in there and smeared peanut butter everywhere. This kid’s allergic to peanut butter!” Leon exclaimed, holding in laughter.

Before he was a custodian, Leon was a painter, but he loves his new job for a less obvious reason. “I love it. For thirty years I painted, so I would be getting up at seven in the morning, fighting traffic and going to work, going to job sites where your parking is all mud, fighting for parking spots, and going to lunch in these long lines,” he said. “Now, I get up whenever I want in the morning. I usually roll out of bed around 9:30-10. If I have a doctor’s appointment or I have to go to the registry, I can now do it. So I love the hours.”

When he is not working, Leon is interested in photography. “I really love photography, which I should get more into.” He reveals he has even shown some of his pictures in classes to students. “A couple years ago I brought in different pictures and explained how I took them, the situation and stuff.”

So, who are the custodians? They are the individuals who work hard in our building so that we can have a clean and safe learning environment. They want to connect and be friendly with students. 

As Leon puts it, “Tell this to some of your friends, don’t be mean to us. We try to get along with you guys.”