James Anthony knows that the work of a school janitor is never done. Even though school custodians do the majority of the sweeping, mopping, and buffing the floors after the school day is done, as long as children fill classrooms, there is something to be cleaned.

James Anthony was at work on Tuesday, his birthday, just as with any other day, keeping his mop and his smile as ready as ever, as reported by NBC4i on October 25, when a call came in that his services were needed in a kindergarten classroom. Janitors never know what they will face when walking through any classroom doorway, from a sick child to shreds of construction paper glued to the floor, to the dreaded stain of red Kool-Aid on a carpet.

What was waiting for Mr. Anthony was something he never expected — a surprise gift from kindergartners at Hickerson Elementary.

A not-so noisy surprise

James Anthony is simply known as “Mr. James” by all the students at Hickerson Elementary School in Tullahoma, TN, and being hearing-impaired doesn't mean that the janitor doesn't have his own way of speaking, listening to, and teaching children every day. The conscientious custodian has taught students bits and pieces of American Sign Language in between his numerous cleanup missions on the campus in over 20 years with the Coffee County Schools. Mr. James does more than teach children about his unique communication method. According to the school principal, the janitor’s lessons in “good manners and how to treat other people” are the most powerful.

James Anthony also reads lips, so there is little that the janitor misses from the lips of the youngest students.

Kindergartners have full days mastering letters, sounds, numbers, reading, and the human relations skills needed on any school playground. Sometimes being quiet is the hardest skill to master. Teacher, Alyssa Hartsfield, teacher Amy Hershman's teacher’s aide, Shelly Lucas, and school nurse, Angela Ridner made it a team effort to teach the children to sing “Happy Birthday” in American Sign Language, and even though they didn't need to be quiet to surprise James Anthony, the squeals of excitement and joy that accompany their signing are as priceless as their smiles, as was the one on Mr.

James’ face when he receives the special greeting.

Beautiful hands in motion

There are no words necessary, spoken or otherwise, to see the pure joy in James Anthony's smile as he comes into the classroom, and realizes that he is being serenaded by the children, in this moving way, for his birthday. The janitor raises his hands to his head in disbelief.

The adults in the room are as thrilled as the students, throwing their heads back in delight at Anthony's reaction.

The swirling motions for “happy” are just one benefit of learning American Sign Language. Laura Berg's article on the benefits of teaching American Sign Language to preschoolers relates how the muscle memory associated with learning sign language enhances the reception for normal language and comprehension, as well as auditory skills. Just as with any second language, younger minds are able to absorb and utilize new language skills more quickly than in later adult years.

The memories mark more than a 60th birthday. James Anthony and the young children who are the Hickerson Hawks have already given priceless lessons to each other, ones that last longer than words, and they have many more yet to share.