Author’s Note: When I worked in my preschool’s Nap Room a few years back, before I became a Story Reader for our Rester children, I observed a remarkable pattern among those nappers who have difficulty falling asleep. I’m amazed, reading this piece for the first time in three years or so, how many details I was able to get down on paper so that you, the reader, would be able to join us there in Room 5!
I sent this article to the journal of a prestigious national Early Childhood Education association. I should have known that they’d reject it, horrified that I would make light of the sacred process of helping children nap. To be fair, they’re in a position similar to that of early women’s rights suffragettes, trying to obtain for their profession the respect—and pay—its practitioners deserve.
I hope, reader, that you will see it’s all in good fun, and feel the love that pervades this piece. Helping children nap IS a sacred process, but it’s also one that I felt just begged for a treatment like this. We all have to laugh to keep our sanity in the trenches…literal or figurative.
We’re in the trenches, taking a last breath before the battle commences. Briana and I, with a little help from Gabriela after she finishes taking out the trash, put out the 28 cots and make them up with the sheets, blankets and stuffed animals from the children’s pillowcases and night bags, and everything’s ready to go! Found Bela’s Binky; Geri’s Binky, stuffed tiger, and blankie; and Trey’s blankie. Neal’s doggie will come in with Lucia after the bell rings, and hopefully Angela will bring Lily’s Pooh Bear.
Briana makes a couple of adjustments to her game plan today. “What would you think if I put Heidi next to Eli?” she asks me, as I sweep the floor. I tell her I’m not sure, but she may as well try it. It would get Heidi away from Neal, thankfully, but put her a little closer to Cassidy, which could also be trouble. Furthermore, it might keep Eli up.
Also, Radha has to be moved because the shaft of light coming in from the roof’s windows keeps her awake. Briana puts her next to Penelope, which is possible now that Laurel’s been moved down to the other Nap Room, Room 2 (we had too many children in here, and they had room for a few more down there). Briana’s a good strategist. No, she’s a genius! There isn’t a place on the gameboard that she allows to go unexamined. But we only know for sure that her moves are the right ones after they’ve been tested in battle! A few things that looked really good on paper have wound up creating mayhem.
The quiet music is on, the blinds are closed, and the lights are off. We’re ready for them.
I let Jonathon ring the bell for the kids out in the play yard. He does a credible job—doesn’t fool around as he sometimes does, and he knows how to ring as loud as a teacher. Strangely, though, a freak accident occurs. The bell clapper itself “rings off” the bell, and is still lost out there, somewhere in the wood chips. We’ll most likely never find it. At least the mishap disperses the line of other children wanting to ring the bell, too, since now there’s nothing to ring.
Pandemonium, as usual, sets in after the bell. A couple of teachers are out rounding up the holdouts, the ones who just can’t quit playing in the sand or on the slide. Marla’s trying to corner Rocky, who is very quick, on the slide. He’s been around and down it twice already. It really takes two teachers to nab him, but we can’t spare any more of our limited force!
Massoud is crying about going to the Rester Room—every day, he forgets that’s where his mom picks him up! Elsa and Jennifer are walking in without their shoes, as usual, even though the Barefoot Flag won’t go up until sometime in April. Wyatt is crying, but hopefully he’ll stop when he gets his bottle.
Briana takes the diaper table post today. Cassidy, Jillian, David and Penelope are already lined up beside her there. It’ll be awhile before Briana can join us in the trenches, so Pam, Leah, Lucia and I will have to hold down the fort. You really have to call Briana’s post front line duty too, though. The room still stinks, and someone’s not ‘fessing up!
Luke and Mara go to get water as usual. Crystal’s jumping up and down on her cot, and Heidi starts to copy her. Saroja can’t find her cot. On his way back from the potty, Trey stops off at his friend Mohsin’s cot and never gets to his own. Neal’s peeking around the screen we put beside his cot so that he won’t be distracted or distracting. He’s making Heidi laugh, even from a distance! Ernie and Tyler, two of the triplets, are singing loudly and practicing their talking. The other Ernest is already lying like a man in a hammock, looking at a book, although it’s “no books” time until 1400 hours, in order to keep all of the children’s energy focused on going to sleep.
I observe all these things from where I am on the floor beside Eli, patting his back. I’m helpless when it comes to doing much about any of the situations I can see from this vantage point. Stern eye contact and a pointed “Sssshhh” can accomplish a certain amount, but several of the children who have been nappers for quite a while are too bold to be affected much by long-distance discipline. And of course, as long as they’re showing off, that encourages the others.
It’s always a Catch-22: I could get up and take Mara’s hippo or Crystal’s dog away temporarily, if they become too disruptive, but my getting up would cause a certain amount of disruption in itself. Plus, it would stall my efforts to help Eli get to sleep, and at this point, every victory for the Forces of Sleep is important.
Looks like it’ll be a tough battle today.
There are absolutely no signs of the enemy letting up one whit. No one is asleep yet, though I see Gus has calmed down, and now that Leah’s gotten Aaron’s special shoes on him, he’s starting to quiet down, too.
Ms. Lucia finally did take Mara’s hippo because Mara was jumping up and down on her cot, and has known the rules here for a year. Lucia’s tactic may have backfired, though. Instead of being quiet in order to get the hippo back, Mara’s screaming at the top of her lungs. From a logical perspective, her behavior is counterproductive, but then again, small children aren’t logical!
I still think Lucia did the right thing. You just can’t let children take advantage of our side’s small force.
I don’t know what’s going on with Eli lately. For the first few months this year, he and I would talk a little and then he’d look around the room for a few minutes. After that, satisfied, he’d turn over and get into his sleeping position. I’d be lightly rubbing his back in a rhythmic, repetitive way, just inside his shoulder blade or down near the base of his spine.
When I first started working in the Nap Room and another teacher had told me, “You can rub people’s backs,” I was shocked that we were allowed to touch children physically! Of course, I’ve never been a dad, and I was new to this field. I wasn’t yet aware that gentle touch is the most powerful tool we on the Side of Sleep have! I didn’t know that a rhythmic pat or light rub can wear away resistance as concretely as the lapping of waves wears away cliffs and mountains.
If he’s turned away from me, I can’t see Eli’s eyes when he’s in “sleep position.” But when I hear a certain change in his breathing, I know it won’t be long. Judging from the times he’s been turned towards me, I know what will happen next: his eyes will start to look vague, with his retinas becoming just pinpoints, as if he’s in some sort of trance. He’ll start breathing like he’s already sleeping. At that point, I deliberately don’t look at his face. I go back to just continuing to focus on gentle back-rubbing. After all, “a watched pot never boils.” A minute later, I’ll look, and notice that his eyes have closed and he’s asleep.
Lately, though, most likely since his baby brother was born a couple of months ago, he starts out by hitting his bear “Go-Go” a little after getting onto his cot. Never did that before! Maybe it’s like Briana suggested when I told her: “Go-Go” represents his brother, who’s gotten so much of Mom and Dad’s attention lately.
Anyhow, Eli is finally nodding off now. He just takes a little longer than he used to, really. He’s one of the children who, when it comes down to a final analysis, really come to the Nap Room to nap. He’s on our side.
We’ve always had some of these no-nonsense children, the practical ones. They can be as full of silliness as any of the others when they’re out in the play yard, but their thinking in the Nap Room mirrors what I think my own would be. I can imagine their reasoning: “I’m a small child, and I’ve had a long day already. I came to school early, played a lot, had lunch, and now I have the delicious prospect of an hour and a half of sleep in the middle of the day! Man, what a life! Who could ask for anything better?”
To me, that’s common sense! Jason was like that, before he got sent down to Room 2. I wonder if he still is? Gus is, too. Gus can be a firecracker on the playground, but he comes here to sleep. You can always count on Gus to just doze off, without needing a teacher to rub his back. What would we do without children like that?
It’s been 20 minutes now, and the battle could still go either way! Eli’s out. I see across the way that Gus is, too! Leah’s caressing Aaron’s head, and his eyes are starting to close. Briana’s finally done with the diapers and is starting to attend to Jillian, who is chattier than a champion parrot and never quiets down with anyone else. Briana sits patiently at her side every day, with a steady hand on her, until eventually her energy runs down. This can take up to an hour. Without a teacher’s calming presence beside them, some of the children never do fall asleep.
After Eli, I went over and rubbed Felix’s back. He’s deceptive, though not deliberately. He always looks sleepy when he’s on his cot. When I get there, I start to rub his back, and within a minute his eyes close and stay closed. I start to creep away, but just when I get to the cot of the next person, I see Felix’s eyes open! Therefore, I have to go back and repeat the process.
With most children, there’s a certain point, not long after their eyes initially close, when their breathing steadies into a sleep mode. By then, the child is in pretty deep and is unlikely to wake up if you leave. But sometimes I have to return to Felix’s cot three or four times.
Now he’s really asleep, I think. I’m going behind the screen to help his little sister, Phyllis. She was thought to be impossible to put to sleep, as her mom told us that she rarely naps at home. But I found that my “two-hand technique”—one hand rubbing her back, with the other resting gently on her head—has been a success.
Before I duck behind the screen, I take a look at the rest of the room. Here and there, a child lies inert, but the battle is still by no means decided! Wyatt has finished his bottle, and has started to cry again. Briana, who had her hands full with Jillian (who is still chattering non-stop), has now moved over to comfort him. Neal is singing loudly. Although he has the voice of an angel, and part of me just wants to listen to him the way you would listen to a songbird, I know that the singing may still keep up the children who are on the edge of slumber.
Crystal’s standing on her cot fluffing her sheets again, and Mara’s jumping on hers yet again. So much chaos remains, it seems impossible that the Forces of Sleep will ever carry this day!
Just before I go to Phyllis, I notice that Jonathon’s cot is empty. His blanket is still lying neatly on top, as if he hasn’t even been there! I walk to the bathroom. Jonathon, seated on the toilet, looks up at me and smiles.
“Jonathon, you’ve been here 20 minutes! Are you done?”
“Yes,” says Jonathon.
“Ok, then go and wash your hands and go to your bed, please,” I say quietly. He smiles and gets off the toilet, and then flushes it. All his life, Jonathon will likely be one of those people who sizes up a situation or a bureaucracy in order to find ways of getting lost between the cracks.
“Try to wash quickly, ok, Jonathon?” I add, as I walk past him where he is now at the sink, on my way back to Phyllis’s alcove.
Jonathon smiles again. Children, of course, tend to become hypnotized when washing their hands. To them, it is not just a sanitary precaution, but an activity in its own right.
Phyllis has nodded off. I emerge from her little screened corridor and stand up.
It is clear that the tide has finally turned. Aside from the quiet music, there is silence.
My eye goes from cot to cot. Ms. Pam has tended to the two of the triplets who had been singing. One is now fast asleep, and the other almost so.
Ms. Leah has risen from Aaron, who is also fast asleep now. Since there are no longer any real disruptions, she goes to Crystal for the last five minutes before her lunch break. Crystal is the opposite of Gus or Jason. She seems afraid of missing a single moment of consciousness during a day, and will go to any possible lengths to remain awake! But even she sometimes yields to patient, one-on-one attention from a teacher of her home classroom.
Even Neal has settled down. I head across the room to the other screened-in cot. Odd burping noises are still issuing from it. I look in, and a little boy smiles up at me.
“Hello, Mohsin,” I say. “Want to go to sleep today?”
Mohsin smiles and shakes his head no. There’s no point in trying. I used to keep a hand going on his back or head no matter what pretzel shape he contorted himself into, and at least half of the time, after 15 or 20 minutes to half an hour, he would finally close his eyes and start snoring away.
But now, Mohsin hasn’t slept in eight weeks! His mother has finally agreed to let him become a Rester, and he starts tomorrow. If he had said he wanted to try to nap, I would have stayed.
Instead of helping Mohsin, I go over to Bela, who is not rebellious toward sleep like he is, but is the closest thing I know of in the Nap Room to a bona fide insomniac. She always smiles (as much as one can with a mouth full of Binky) when I ask if she wants to try to sleep, and nods. She does try, but she only succeeds about a third of the time.
Well, I’m hoping maybe today will be one of those days. I gently rub her back and as I do, survey the room of peacefully sleeping little boys and girls, the snores of some of them traveling up into the room amid the continuing soft music.
Every day, there is a miracle. Every day I try to catch the moment of the miracle, the moment when the tide turns—the moment when our ally arrives. Every day I miss it.
I know though, that today it happened at some point in time after I went behind the screen to help Phyllis. I missed the arrival of our ally, the one who comes like a thief in the night to join the fray on our side. Without him, even though at each bed, he’s there and gone so fast that none of us have ever seen him, the tide would never turn!
Though I don’t know what he looks like, I send out, in thought, a thanks. I hum a little tune in my head. We’re grateful to you, Mr. Sandman!
Read more from Max Reif in THE LURE OF JEWELS: A preschool teacher’s notebook>>