From the time he was a little boy growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Sean Tonti has always loved working with his hands. In school, his interests went far beyond the wooden name plaques and crooked picture frames he made in shop class. At home, he was constantly taking things apart and putting them back together, recalled his mother, Joetta Tonti. “He was probably the only kid who ever beat up a Tonka truck,” she said, laughing.
As a young man, Tonti sought out every opportunity to learn his way with tools, doing, “every job in the book except dig ditches and lay tracks,” as he put it proudly.
But as much as he’s into a handyman’s duties, Tonti said the most important aspect of his job as custodian at P.S. 380 in Brooklyn is looking out for the school’s kids. “I love being around the children,” explained the 35-year-old father of three. “It’s a joy to see them happy and in a clean, safe environment.”
Jacqueline Springer-Harris, a special education teacher who has known Tonti since they both started working there 11 years ago, stressed the great rapport he has with her students. “He knows all the kids by name. He looks out for their needs and tries to meet them any way he can. And he’s very warm with the teaching staff,” she added. “In addition to doing a great job he’s just a wonderful person.”
Tonti’s wife, Jeanine, said his commitment to the school had earned him the nickname “Yes Man.” “Sean will never tell you he can’t do something. He goes to work early and he stays late. He will work his lunch break and never turns down overtime,” she explained. “He’s an extremely hard worker, he just has that attitude.”
Jeanine Tonti said her husband is often the first to respond when alarms go off at night, driving half an hour from their house in Bergen Beach. When it pours, he deals with flooding. When it’s hot, he makes sure the garbage is cleared promptly. In the winter, he shovels snow. In the summer, he plants flowers.
He’d even like to raise money for a sign to be put outside the building-a small luxury, but one he said that the school’s PTA, mostly made up of families from the nearby Marcy Houses, cannot afford. “We only raise about $2,000 to $3,000 a year because we’re in one of the poorest areas in the city,” he added, quickly pointing out that despite this, grades are up and attendance is at nearly 95 percent.
Responsibilities like these leave little time for the football and Nascar fan to pursue his hobbies. Besides, Tonti spends nearly all of his spare time taking classes to become a custodian engineer. He’s studying all aspects of structural maintenance, from fire safety to heating and cooling systems, in the hope of one day running his own school. “Your job is to make the children safe,” he said. “So you really have to know what you’re doing.”
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