It was the sacred time: the little cartons
delivered in their plastic crate
by an eighth grade boy
who looked like Gulliver
for a moment, striding through
a cloud of Lilliputian first graders.
A quiet knock, then he’d come in
all hunch-shouldered, quick, and shy,
to set them down next to my desk.
And there they sat, piled in little hills,
like shanties after a cyclone.
How my head spun with the changes
from day to day: This school. No that school.
This classroom that ticks along like a clock,
that one that has no lesson plans, no paper.
This was Paterson, New Jersey.
I was twenty-one: a substitute
who knew nothing about the world
and how it worked.
In one school I nodded
in agreement as the Principal
told me, a red finger nail wagging,
that we must never, never, never
use corporal punishment, no matter
how rude the children might become.
In another I trembled at the Principal’s
booming voice as he hit one of the boys
in front of the class, a trouble maker,
he insisted I identify, and I suddenly
felt so exhausted I let them do whatever
it was they wanted for the rest of the afternoon.
But milk time. Milk time was sacred.
Each one of them carefully opening
his or her own little house of goodness,
stepping into a clean white space,
a silence punctuated by an occasional
bubbling noise, as someone’s straw reached
into a corner to grab the last few drops.
I didn’t know then that, for many of these
children, this was breakfast. For many of them
ten o’clock rang like an angelus putting an end
to stomach growls and shaky hands
that could barely hold a pencil.
All I knew was that at ten o’clock
they sat still. They were quiet, and
they were comforted. I was too.
Sitting at the big desk, in the front of the room,
I felt like a little girl again, the one
who stood against the wall in the playground,
watching her classmates ease into smiles
and whispers, as they filed inside, sat
at their desks, opened the cartons and savored.
A little girl on the margins, hungry for love.
And here it was: milk time again,
all of us in communion for the time it took,
to swallow that daily ration of decency,
that blessed little half pint that got us through.