As a star wide receiver at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School a decade ago, Jesse Sparks could fly. He had breakaway speed and a knack for catching long touchdowns — snagging passes and outrunning everyone to the end zone.
But if you want to know what makes Jesse Sparks remarkable, don’t look to the field or the record books. Look instead down the high school’s tidy hallways — the ones Sparks has been cleaning as a custodian for the last five years.
It was his speed that earned Sparks a football scholarship at Northeastern after he graduated in 2008. He finished second at the all-state track meet in 2007, running the 200 meters in 22.22 seconds. In 2008, Sparks caught two long touchdowns on his way to a most valuable player award in the Shriners Football Classic.
But Sparks was a good student, too, and when Northeastern announced it would end its football program after his sophomore season, he stayed in school. Northeastern honored the scholarships they’d offered, and he graduated with a degree in criminal justice — working every summer back at Rindge and Latin on a facilities department moving crew that disposed of old desks.
When he graduated, he started looking for jobs. He took civil service exams and the LSAT, but his only real offer was at Rindge, where his supervisor told him he would be welcome to stay on full time.
“I was at the top of the high school food chain,” Sparks said, “and now I was back cleaning toilets.”
Look, all honest work is honorable, and anyone with an ounce of humility knows no job is beneath them. And Sparks has humility by the bucket. Instead of talking about how hard he’s worked, he talks about all the people who have helped him, like high school guidance counselors Lorraine Suarez Davis and Michael Tubinis. But it was still embarrassing, Sparks said, to return with a mop to the school where he’d been a star.
At first, Sparks was “depressed and angry,” he said. He noticed the quizzical looks on the faces of those who recognized him. He’d been bound for greatness. Why was he back?
Well, for one thing, a job is a job. This is the one he could find, and the checks were steady. If nothing else, he had a place to huddle up until he figured out his next play.
That play developed slowly.
“I would see him every day and say, ‘OK, Jesse, it’s time to plan your future,’” Suarez Davis recalled. She saw how good he was with the students, and began pushing him to become a counselor, too -- after all, she said, he’d spent years with coaches, whose jobs aren’t so different.
“I thought he’d be a natural at it,” Suarez Davis said.
Eventually, she convinced him that he might be able to help kids like himself avoid the same false-start he felt he’d had. He enrolled at Lesley University in Cambridge, pursuing a master’s degree through a three-year program. But he was intent on paying his own way.
“I’ve seen what debt can do to people,” Sparks explained. He’s also seen how easily life can be derailed. His father died when he was five. His step-father and his brothers have had various degrees of trouble with the law.
“Cambridge is known for MIT and Harvard but it’s very easy to get lost in the cracks,” Sparks said.
So he kept the custodial job, lived with his mother and portioned out his paychecks toward an installment plan at Lesley — sometimes nearly three quarters of his monthly earnings. He spent mornings as a counseling intern at Rindge and Latin, and afternoons and evenings cleaning the high school, eating up vacation time to leave his shift early for night classes. He put another $500 a year — a full week’s pay — toward an annual scholarship for the Rindge and Latin senior who wrote the best essay about overcoming adversity.
By his third year at Lesley, he was either at school, work or his internship from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, darting out to class and coming back to finish cleaning late into the night.
Good thing he’s fast.
“I’ve never been so exhausted,” he said. But by then, the embarrassment was gone. Instead, he’d become an object lesson in hard work. Students “saw me as Mr. Sparks the guidance counselor intern dressed in Brooks Brothers during the day, and then Mr. Sparks the custodian after school dressed in dirty blue Dickies,” he said.
“I told them, ‘Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do to get to where you want.’”
A Lesley spokesman said that while many students work, holding down a full time, entry-level, physically demanding job while completing three years of coursework was far from typical.
“I think that it takes a certain person with a certain amount of humility,” said Richard Harding Jr., a Cambridge School Committee member who recalled Sparks as humble and hardworking — “a first-class kid” — even when he was racing past defensive backs in a league not known for high-flying offense.
“He just persevered and did it the right way,” Harding said. “Often our young people don’t get enough credit for doing things the right way.”
Earlier this month, Sparks earned his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. On Twitter, he shared a picture of himself — blue rubber gloves, shopping cart full of cleaning supplies — and a picture of his diploma.
“I graduated from the school, cleaned the school, then interned at the school,” he wrote. “I haven’t slept for three years.”
This summer, he’s taking time off from the custodial work to help students in a summer program.
Degree in hand, he’s looking for a job again. He works fast, and he’s not picky about hours.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.