In the catchment area of P. S. 217, as indeed in my home territory of darkest Flatbush, there was very little immigration or emigration. People stayed put, for the most part, and the students with whom you entered kindergarten were the ones who were likely to graduate with you at the end of eighth grade.
I can think of two outsiders who came not from a near neighborhood but from the rumored "outside world." One was Beryl McLeod, who arrived from Scotland, stayed long enough to engender in me a most powerful and confusing pre-adolescent crush, and then disappeared. Lovely Beryl spoke with a most exotic and enchanting accent, Glaswegian if I remember correctly. And then there was Alan Dean, who dropped in for a year or two from western Pennsylvania. He was a diminutive tough boy, not very bright but competitive on the punch ball field. He also spoke in an dialect unfamiliar to me and which I now judge to have been country or Appalachian. One day in Miss Finsmith's crowded stuffy fifth-grade classroom we pupils were asked to elucidate a picture that the teacher had displayed. It was a of a young lad with a candle in his hand. I recall very clearly a sentence of Alan Dean's: "you can see that it's nighttime because he's wearing his sleepers."
Alan Dean's "sleepers" made a lifetime impression on me, not only because I had never heard that specific term before, but because I wasn't until that moment aware of dialectical differences in vocabulary. I knew about soda but I had never heard of tonic; I knew about pancakes but had never heard of griddlecakes or flapjacks, and I wore sneakers all day every day but knew nothing of tennis shoes or tennies. I was not only monolingual but monodialectical, if there be such a word. For someone to employ the word "sleepers" for an item of clothing that I knew only as "pajamas" was therefore a transformative experience.
And a very sensible word, at that. Much to be preferred to other deplorable dialectal terms for pajamas, as for example the twee diminutive "jammies," or worse, the lazy "pj's" (not doubt employed by the sort of people who would call orange juice, O.J.), or even worser, the infantile reduplicative "jim-jams."
So I was on the alert the next time that 'sleepers" swam into my imaginative ken, which was when I first became acquainted with John Donne's clever little love poem, "The Good Morrow," in which the poet claims that until he fell in love, he was immature, unconscious:
Who the heck, I wondered, were these "seven sleepers?" Not, in fact, a wardrobeful of pajamas nor (my first guess) a parody of the famous 'nine worthies" of chivalry? But no, inasmuch as Donne could not prevent himself from juxtaposing religion and sex, the seven sleepers were a group of enthusiastic early Christian converts who were imprisoned for their faith in a cave near Ephesus, fell into miraculous sleep, and then woke up two centuries later to discover to their delight that their city had adopted and institutionalized their religion. Rips van Winkle of miraculous devotion.
Of other religious or literary sleepers the surely the most prominent are Thoreau's. In a poignant passage about railroads in Walden, Thoreau recalls that "sleepers" is the demotic names for the wooden ties on which the steel rails are laid. From this identity, Thoreau elaborates a conceit about the way the new industrialism favors some and crushes others. "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.” So "sleepers" live one.
I have never heard this sense of "sleepers" in conversation, but then, I don't talk about railroad-making all that much. Nevertheless, it is not difficulty to endorse the continued pertinence of Thoreau's witty comparison.
No doubt my regular metablogian readership has been waiting patiently for me to mention that the "sleeper" is the first and easiest trick learned by beginners with the yo-yo. At least, such was the case in the 1950s P. S. 217 schoolyard. And a spy in a "sleeper cell." And a dark horse. Surprise. A film; in fact, many films.
A lifetime of many and various "sleepers."