Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

My first teaching job right out of college in 1974 was in the Richmond, VA city school system. I worked for a federal program called Operation Uplift, and I was assigned to four kindergartens in four different schools and one pre-school Head Start Center. What I lacked in experience I made up for with enthusiasm. I embraced my assigned schools, meeting the principals, working with classroom teachers, and arranging for meetings with parents. But having spent all of my life in the suburbs–living, going to school, and student teaching–did not prepare me for the conditions I’d find in the inner city schools.  Some of the schools were in good condition–maybe old, but clean and neat, while others were new brick boxes that hid some grim realities. That year of teaching in inner city schools is etched indelibly in my memory. I can still see some of the faces of the children I taught, several of whom inspired poems in my new book, No Barking in the Hallways.  Here is one such poem, “Naptime in the Kindergarten Room”, published in 2014 by Pif Magazine.

Naptime in the Kindergarten Room

Heat, intense as the fragrance of September hibiscus, fills the kindergarten classroom in the new brick school. Alphabet carpet tiles cover the floor. Child-sized mats stacked like lonely rafts in the back of the room. A boy rolls a blue marble from palm to palm. The curve of a smile paints his face when our eyes exchange hello. The lights in the room are cut off, a pedestal fan sweeps the room haltingly. The air still, flat, heavy. The children take reluctant naps, their damp faces resting on folded arms atop small round tables. What is the logic of kindergarten children napping at tables? Their teacher, Miss Kimberly, sees the question forming on my face, pulls up a chair for me at her desk.
This school was built over a landfill. There are roaches everywhere. I’ve even seen them crawling out of the kids’ lunchboxes. I have a mat for each child, but I’d never let them sleep on this floor. Miss Kimberly checks her watch. She knows I’m there to pick up several children for the speech class. Lucky you—with an office out in the trailer.

I don’t think we have any roaches out there.

What Happened to Maxine?

My first job as a teacher was in Richmond, Virginia, working for a federal program that provided enrichment for at-risk kindergarten students. And while I had gone to high school in Baltimore’s inner city, I never knew the stories or the challenges of the people in my school’s vicinity. It wasn’t until I was working in Richmond that I found out what poverty looks like on a personal level.


I remember going into a kindergarten room and seeing all of the children napping with their heads on their desks–the school was built over a landfill and there were roaches everywhere. In another school, one of my students had teeth etched with lines of black decay, so I asked his mother to come in so that I could talk with her about his dental care. When she smiled, both of her front teeth were missing.

In that first year of teaching, I was much too naive to know much about the role of property taxes in funding schools and how red-lining practices enforced segregated housing, but I saw the effects of those policies on the children in my speech classes. I still remember those children, and their stories feature prominently in my new book of poetry called No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. One child I still think about is Maxine—and I wonder whatever happened to her.

Maxine the Hugger

When Maxine enters the speech room
she throws her arms around my neck
pulls my face close to her cheek.
Her party dress is dotted with food stains,
the gray-white collar frayed and limp.
Maxine smells like musty sheets
draped over furniture in an abandoned house.
Blond bangs graze the tops of her brows, thick lashes
frame hopeful eyes. As if to answer the question
I would never ask, Maxine tells me, We don’t have no water 
in our house. She reads the worry on my face.
But Momma says not to fret
‘cause my Uncle Todd—he lives in the next house over—
he’s gonna run a hose
down to our place.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is tonight! February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilbon Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.