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Kindergarteners surprise deaf school custodian by signing 'Happy Birthday'

James Anthony, a custodian, is surprised by kindergartners signing “Happy Birthday.” (Photo: Hickerson Elementary)
James Anthony, a custodian, is surprised by kindergartners signing “Happy Birthday.” (Photo: Hickerson Elementary)

School custodians don’t get the recognition they deserve. Yes, they clean up a classroom after students and teachers have left and ensure that the cafeteria is ready to go for every lunch period, but few student realize the true extent of their responsibilities.

Custodians are there before the doors open and are there long after the students go home. They clean up after concerts, wax floors after summer school, and set up chairs for graduation.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all if you could remember your favorite teacher’s name years later, while few probably know the names of the custodians who have helped take care of their school for years. But these students in Tennessee sure do.

James Anthony, known around school as “Mr. James,” is a custodian at Hickerson Elementary School in Tullahoma, Tenn., and is more than a role model for the students — he’s a friend and an educator. He is deaf, and he can often be seen teaching students how to sign.

The custodian, who has worked for the school for 15 years, and has worked for the school district for 30 years, was invited into a kindergarten class by Allyssa Hartsfield, Amy Hershman, and school nurse Angela on his 60th birthday.

To his surprise, the three adults and the kindergarteners signed the song “Happy Birthday” on his big day on Tuesday.

“Mr. James teaches the kids sign language every now and then, teaches them good manners and how to treat other people,” principal Jimmy Anderson, who describes Mr. James as a role model, told Fox 17 in Nashville.

The effort the students put into learning how to sign “Happy Birthday,” just for him, “touched his heart,” the custodian said.

Anthony is a man who seems to genuinely enjoy his job. Erica Swanson Fulks wrote on Facebook, “Mr. James was the custodian at the high school when I was in school. He never missed one of our basketball games — one of our biggest fans! We all love Mr. James!”

Holly Evett Williams commented, “He still is at every single game and some of the practices to this day!”

And Matthew Shapourian added, “He gave me some basketball shoes at Coffee County High School to wear during a summer basketball camp in 2001. I was 16. I remember not knowing why he was letting me have them. He asked me what size I wore and still have not forgotten his generosity.”

LeAnne Combs Evans summed it up best: “James Anthony is one of the kindest and caring school employee that I have ever worked with!!! I am so glad this class learned sign language to give him the best birthday wish ever!! You are love[d] James by everyone!!”

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