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An elementary school custodian just got his college degree — and was the fifth-grade commencement speaker

Tylan Bailey, who has worked as a custodian for more than two decades, stands with the Georgia State University panther statue before his graduation in May. (C Mitchell Studios)

For 23 years, Tylan Bailey arrived at Hightower Elementary in Doraville, Ga., at 5:30 a.m. before the sun rose to get the school ready for nearly 600 students.

As head custodian at the Atlanta-area school, he turned on lights, mopped hallways, vacuumed classrooms and “cleaned anything you can imagine cleaning,” he said.

He started working at Hightower shortly after he graduated from high school and had put off thoughts of going to college, he said. At the time, he was a teen father with a new daughter and bills to pay.

But four years ago, as he approached 40, Bailey began wondering what the rest of his life might look like. He quietly had a dream of his own: to become a public schoolteacher.

Now Bailey, 43, is lining up interviews to pursue that goal after graduating on May 6 from Georgia State University with a teaching degree. He hopes to become a physical education teacher and encourage children to unplug more from technology.

“I’d always thought it would be fun to be a teacher, especially a kindergarten teacher,” said Bailey, who lives in Lawrenceville, outside of Atlanta. “But I had a lot of responsibilities. I was really grateful to get the custodial job at Hightower.”

With each passing year there, he came to love his job more, he said, because he was able to form a special bond with the students — particularly those without father figures in their lives.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know the kids and encouraging them to do their best work,” Bailey said. “I know it’s tough because I grew up without a father, and I had a childhood where I grew up in a lot of different places.”

Bailey’s mother frequently moved him and his two sisters from one town to the next, he said, and he attended more than 10 schools around the country.

“It was hard, but I’ve always made the best of any situation I’ve been in,” he said. “School was a safe haven from the gangs and drugs in the housing projects. I always wanted something better than that, so I tried to spend my time reading and learning.”

A student was barred from graduation for wearing the wrong shoes. So a teacher gave him the shoes off his own feet.

Now that he has four children of his own — two from a previous marriage are now adults — Bailey said he decided it was time to follow what he’d preached to students for decades: Dedicate yourself to something you love, and follow your heart.

When he told his family that he wanted to go to college and get a teaching degree, they were elated, he said. His two youngest children, Jayla, 12, and Dylan, 5, volunteered to help him with his studies.

“Every night, we’d all sit down at the kitchen table to do homework, and the kids would encourage me and tell me not to give up,” Bailey said.

“There were times when I wondered if I could do it because it was kind of foreign to me to go back to school at age 39,” he added. “I was always the oldest person in every class. My kids are really proud that I stuck with it.”

So is Bailey’s wife.

“He’s the hardest-working person I know,” said Joi Bailey, 41, a literacy coach for the DeKalb County School District. “We spent many nights talking about his dreams and what it would take to achieve them.”

“There were a lot of early mornings and late nights, but he never gave up and managed to become the first college graduate in his family,” she added.

Bailey said he couldn’t have done it without the support of Hightower Elementary’s cleaning crew, who often exchanged shifts with him so he could take all of the classes he needed to graduate.

“They were incredible — they knew how important this was to me,” he said. “I really can’t thank them enough.”

Principal Sheila Price was also a supporter, he said.

She just graduated from college. She said her Uber passenger made it possible.

“She allowed me the flexibility to come in early or late, depending on my school schedule,” Bailey said. “She and everyone else wondered when I slept and encouraged me every day to keep going.”

Price said it’s been inspiring to watch Bailey.

“Mr. Bailey is prepared to do this — he’s really knowledgeable about what goes into teaching because he’s worked in the building for so long,” she said.

As head custodian, he’s done a lot more than simply keep the building clean, Price added.

“Whenever we’ve had an emergency situation, like an electrical problem or a water leak, he’s there to fix it,” she said. “And he’s always been extremely supportive of every one of our students.”

In early May, a parent stopped by the school to thank Bailey for being there when her son needed somebody to talk to, Price said.

“Our kids look up to him,” she said. “It’s bittersweet that he’ll soon be moving on because we’re sure going to miss him.”

Bailey said he didn’t hesitate to say yes when Price asked him to speak at the school’s fifth-grade commencement ceremony last month.

“This school has been stable for me — it’s been a family,” he said. “It was easy to speak from the heart.”

“I told the kids to be more than what people think they are and to meet their blessings halfway,” Bailey said. “It’s something I taught myself a long time ago. I’m really happy now that I took my own advice.”

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