Poems From a Kindergarten World

OF course I request the teacher's permission first. But later, just before recess, I return to the kindergarten and, almost ceremoniously, ask the children: May I borrow your classroom? I explain that this little corner of the school contains so many memories, make-believes, fears, and triumphs that I'm convinced that a visit here by my ``older'' students will result in an outpouring of poetry.

Poems! Since I'm the ``visiting poet,'' they know how assiduously I've been hunting for these things. I talked about them a great deal in my opening assembly. And last week, I was a guest in their classroom, reading new poems and discussing ways they might search for their own. The kindergarteners seem honored, if a bit surprised, to hear how rich in poetry their little portion of the school is.

Over the years, I've brought fifth and sixth graders, eleventh and twelfth graders, and even groups of teachers attending afterschool workshops down to the kindergarten rooms on just such a hunting expedition. With pens and notebooks in hand, we spread out across the room with the seriousness of anthropologists examining a long-lost civilization.

It doesn't matter whether you actually attended this school as a five-year-old; all kindergarten rooms become one in the realm of memory. It becomes that first separation, that first foreign kingdom (dazzling and terrifying at once!) you set out to conquer. Mother brought you to the door and left you there (how could she?) amid the exuberant company of little strangers and one grown-up, one teacher, to whom you were instructed to give allegiance and obey.

No matter where or when you first went to school, I'm willing to bet that the face of that teacher still hovers somewhere in the resonant depths of memory.

Look around the room: dress-up corner, building blocks, science table, mock kitchen. (Did yours have the oven with a light bulb inside? Ours could actually bake tiny corn muffins!) There's the bookcase and reading pillows (sssh!! quiet time!); the art corner with easels and our fathers' threadbare pin stripes for smocks; and of course the ``circle area'' on the rug where you had to sit up and listen and not talk.

For my sixth graders, on the verge of the ``serious'' years of junior high, the kindergarten room is a reminder of the ease, the pure play they prized so highly.

For my high schoolers, it is an Eden; they are shocked by the intensity of the longing, by the vividness of their memories, by how much they thought they'd never forget, but did. Despite the social taboo against overt enthusiasm, there's an uncontrollable desire among them to stack blocks into a tower, to dress one of the dolls in party clothes. (And they do! They play with the toys, laughing out loud, and then tease each other in order to preserve a certain sense of cool: ``I'm just acting up; I'm not really enjoying this.'')

As for the teachers I work with: It takes an extra stretch of time for adults to forget they are still in school, still in their workplace, constrained by convention - before, slowly, they too allow themselves the freedom to explore. Watching them stroll to each corner of the room, casually lift a storybook or pet a blue plush hippo, handle fat crayons or slide cherry-sized beads across a string abacus - I wait for that certain hook to take hold. The hook! The compelling moment, the one touch or sound or smell that will instantly disengage them from the present, draw them inexorably back, the decades dispersing with a single breath like so much dust on a toy boat.

This sudden opening will lead them right to that room, that one afternoon when, when.... And that's when the pads spring open and the pens begin to race furiously across the narrow blue lines. Oh, the looks on those faces! There are actually tears streaking some. And great wobbly grins on others.

George Orwell (of all people) wrote that, ``Only child life is real life'' - when the world seemed to be dangerously close, our experiences uninterpreted and startlingly vivid. We didn't quite understand what was happening to us, of course, yet we knew! We felt our way into some tenuous wisdom that, though for most doesn't survive into adulthood, is no less wise or vital today.

By this time, everyone is working busily and I feel a little like a boatman who has safely conveyed his passengers to the other side of the cold wide river. Now, duties accomplished, it becomes my turn. I take my tiny notebook from my jacket pocket and begin to prowl. And though I've done this a dozen times before in different workshops, I am always astonished by what I find, by what's been waiting inside that small room, that small self, for me to come across again, to recognize and to follow like the sprawling trail of a poem.

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