Kirkman’s Schoolgirl Problem


If fifteen young ladies in a school

walk three abreast for seven days

in succession, how would you


arrange them each day so that none

would walk twice abreast?

This problem of combinatorics


was first proposed by Thomas Kirkman

in 1850, in his query number VI

in Ladies and Gentleman’s Diary.


If you want to know the answer

you should ask the middle aged man

in the front of room playing Bach


on the baroque flute. He solved it

120 years later, a Caltech undergrad

to great career-making acclaim.


Ask him, too, if he can he come up

with an equation to graph the movements

of the Philadelphia Hallahan Catholic


girls on their last day of school

lined-up in the halls three abreast, who

when the bell rings its dismissal


break free and surge into the streets,

bolting across the Parkway to swarm

The Love Fountain downtown.


They leap over the mid-day smokers,

noshers and sun-soaking secretaries

into the warm water, screeching.


They splash and shove, topple and dunk

each other, until their loosened hair

and shabby uniforms are thoroughly soaked.


And then, as they emerge onto the hot

concrete plaza, leave perfect dark droplets

in glomerations of 16th notes.

Leonard Kress has published in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. Recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems, and Craniotomy as well as his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. He lived in Philadelphia for the first 40 years of life.