Sixth Grade


for Raymond Keltner, 1936-1979


In the Thunderdome of twelve-year-old boys,
learning the Code of the Playground,
No Tattling, Two for Flinching,
I had my first male teacher.

He was a big guy and played the curmudgeon.
When he took attendance that first day,
butterflies turned to hurricanes in my stomach
as he mispronounced my name.

He didn’t mock my vocabulary like the bullies.
He welcomed my scale model of the solar system
with blunt praise so I didn’t get beaten up
during recess or on the long walk home.

One sunny late winter, he borrowed a cornet
from one of the band kids and serenaded
his students for the last half hour of school
his love of music vibrating in every note.

Three years later, during freshman algebra,
they announced that he’d died of a heart attack.
I remember girls from my class crying.
I wanted to but did not— having failed
his most important lesson.

(The two men in the top row of my class picture are the school principal on the left and Mr. Keltner on the right. Any guesses which kid I was?)

(This poem was published in the Hidden in Childhood anthology in January 2023.)

About Bartholomew Barker

Bartholomew Barker is one of the organizers of Living Poetry, a collection of poets and poetry lovers in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Born and raised in Ohio, studied in Chicago, he worked in Connecticut for nearly twenty years before moving to Hillsborough where he makes money as a computer programmer to fund his poetry habit.
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13 Responses to Sixth Grade

  1. Lisa Tomey says:

    This is a touching portrayal of this man. Sad he had such a short life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brian Tolliver says:

    I can name 22 of the 26 kids pictured

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JeanMarie says:

    OK Bart. My best guess for which one is you is the kid, second from the left on the top row. If I’m right do I get a prize?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cassa Bassa says:

    Lovely memory. (And I couldn’t pick you put…westerners look alike I blame it on….bad joke)

    Liked by 1 person

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