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.