Twelve Weeks In The Toilet

Once seen, some things cannot be unseen

“I want the mirrors to be spotless, zero streaks,” the platoon warrant officer at my new company declared, as he strode through the bathroom. Four cadets tiptoed meekly in his wake, the unlucky toilet cleaners chosen for the new term. I was one of them. As a newcomer to the company, I watched carefully as the PWO showed us the standard he wanted the bathroom cleaned to, trying to figure out what he was like. Reasonable? Harsh? Or was he one of the insane ones? 

“Same for the toilet, no stains, I want it sparkling clean,” the instructor continued, banging open a stall door and stepping in to look in the bowl. We crowded in the narrow entrance behind him, trying to get a better view. The PWO frowned. 

“This is a bad example…see those brown stains?” Before I could say anything, he reached his bare hand into the bowl, right at the waterline, and began to scrub the bowl with his fingers. Splish, splash. We watched wordlessly, stunned into silence. 

After a few seconds, the PWO stopped and straightened up, satisfied. But he didn’t turn around to leave. Instead, he pressed the flush, and dabbled his fingers in the running water. 

“See? Can wash hands also.” 

“Allllllright.” I thought. “He’s one of the insane ones.” 

That was the inauspicious beginning to my twelve weeks as a cleaner for my platoon’s bathroom. I’d never been picked for the role before, which was great because camp bathrooms press all my gross buttons. “Press” is a bit of an understatement— it’s more of a “mash all my gross buttons with a baseball bat” kind of thing. I remember how, in the first week of BMT, I inadvertently looked into a toilet stall someone had “bombed,” and had the image seared into my mind for two weeks. I couldn’t stop cringing every time I thought about it–no kidding, it would literally appear when I closed my eyes. 

Now, in my new role, I could no longer ignore the area in camp I hated the most. Cleaning it was a thousand little cringe-inducing moments, moments such as…

…picking miscellaneous hairs from wet drain covers with a piece of toilet paper, and feeling the water soak through to my fingers…

…the time I was vigorously plunging a choked toilet, and had some of the contents splash out onto me…

…scrubbing the floor under the urinals, and getting the water into my socks…

…and many other such delightful events. 

But despite all the nastiness, I resolved not to bemoan my awful luck in getting this duty. Bitterness wouldn’t make anything better–I decided I might as well give the job my best shot, and see where that would lead me. 

I learned quickly how exhausting cleaning a toilet can be–bending over to scrub urinals isn’t kind to your back, while mopping and squeeging the floor makes your arms really sore. But even worse than the physical effort is realising other users of the bathroom don’t care about it as much as you do. They aren’t invested in keeping it clean–after all, someone else is fixing the mess. 

The results of this attitude appeared every week. Empty toilet roll tubes left in stalls, dried camo paint stains on the sink, toilet paper dropped on the floor that would turn to soggy mush when wet…it drove me nuts to clean up the same messes again and again. 

Yet, I couldn’t really blame the inconsiderate users. They just didn’t understand the labor that went into keeping the bathroom spic and span—they’d never tried it. And honestly, my own attitude before my stint as a cleaner wasn’t too different. Nobody understands until they pick up the mop for themselves. 

This gave me a much greater appreciation for the work cleaners do in toilets across Singapore. I’d never before had any inkling of the immense work required to keep one bathroom usable for 15 people—meanwhile, professional cleaners maintain multiple toilets every day, for hundreds of people to use. That’s something I think about now every time I step into a public bathroom, and it makes me especially careful not to leave a mess. 

As my weeks of toil in the toilet continued, my mindset towards it slowly began to change. It became more than just a job I was forced to do, a weekly obligation to get through every Friday. I noticed I wasn’t as grossed out as I used to be. Cleaning didn’t feel like a chore anymore. I was buying air freshener and additional cleaning equipment with my own money, on my own initiative. What was happening? 

Then it hit me. 

I had become invested in the bathroom. 

Stop laughing! I’m not kidding. Let me explain. 

Because of the hard work of our crew each week, the toilet had become really clean. Like, the best I’d ever seen in an army camp. It was certainly better than any other in the company; when my platoon mates had to use bathrooms on a different floor, they often told me afterward about how much better ours was. Even our sergeant major liked it–we could tell because he would rarely say anything during inspections, which from him, was equivalent to a rave review. 

Better still, I didn’t mind using it anymore. I used to spend as little time in the toilet as possible, and be frequently disgusted by what I saw. Now, when I stepped inside, I knew every corner of it was thoroughly soaped and scrubbed, through the hard work my crew put in every week. I was proud to have a part in maintaining something my commanders were satisfied with, my platoon mates liked, and I was happy to use. And that gave the sweaty, dirty labor every week purpose and direction.

Those twelve weeks in the toilet taught me something important. I learned how even a menial, dirty job can give me immense satisfaction, and benefit the daily lives of many people, if done well. Sometimes, I wonder how different things would have been had I chosen to be bitter about the role, to resent the work. I’m glad I chose instead to give it my 100% every week, to own the part I had to play. In the process, I turned my least favourite part of camp into a place I was proud to work in. 

As for the PWO, whose unorthodox toilet cleaning methods so shocked me in the beginning, he never used his hand to clean the toilet again while I was there, although he often jokingly threatened to. And despite his ridiculously high standards for our platoon during inspections, I don’t recall ever being punished for infractions–instead, he would point out the mistake, we’d fix it, and not make it again. He showed me how it was possible to maintain high standards without having to shout and scream, and I really respected that. Yet, when I graduated and left his company, I made sure not to shake his hand. I knew all too well where it had been.

Aaron was resident writer for the Homeschool Alumni in 2021-2022. His column Tales From Two Years  recorded his experiences in National Service. He is now based in the USA.

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