An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender

Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn round their pallor:
The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-
seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,
His lesson, from his desk. At back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream
Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this map, their world,
Where all their future’s painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example.
With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal —
For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
All of their time and space are foggy slum.
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,
This map becomes their window and these windows
That shut upon their lives like catacombs,
Break O break open till they break the town
And show the children to green fields, and make their world
Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues
Run naked into books the white and green leaves open
History theirs whose language is the sun.

Summary

The poem begins with a description of the children sitting in a school classroom which is located in a slum. The poet has compared these children to rootless weeds as they are not given any importance by any member of the society. They are unwanted like the rootless weeds or useless plants. Their faces are pale and untidy hair fall all over their faces.

Then, the poet describes a few children sitting in the classroom, there is a tall girl who sits with her head down due to poverty or some affliction. She seems to be in a depressed state. There is a boy who is very thin and has eyes which bulge out like that of a rat. His physical appearance clearly depicts that he is undernourished and his eyes seem to be always in search of food like a rat. There is one more boy who is unlucky as he had inherited a gnarled bone disease from his father. His physical growth is stunted and he recite his lesson from his desk as he can’t stand. Another boy is seated at the back of that dull and dim room, there is a sweet boy who is not paying any attention to the class. Rather he is day-dreaming about the outside world where a squirrel is playing in the hollow of a free. It is in contrast to his own life. He also wants to go out and play like a squirrel but cannot do so.

The poet then proceeds to give a detailed description of the classroom which has sour cream walls. The dirty and yellow and are unpleasant to look at. There is a picture of Shakespeare’s head on the wall. Apart from this, a cloudless sky at dawn, the domes of buildings, the beautiful scene of the Tyrolese valley with its beautiful flowers and bells are all painted on the walls. But these things have no meaning for the slum children. The names of people who have given donations for the school have also been displayed on the sour cream walls. Open handed maps have also been drawn on the walls of the classroom but they are of no use as their area has not been shown in it. This map does not have their world in it. Their world is foggy, dull and bleak. There is no ray of hope in it. Their life has no future and they live a life of uncertainty. They are doomed to live in narrow streets, with a dull, leaden sky. Rivers, capes and stars are natural beauties but for these children, they represent a world which has no meaning for them.

Shakespeare’s head on the map on the walls of a classroom of a slum is wicked because they can’t imagine any other world except their own. The pictures of ships and sun are a bad example for these children because they tempt them to run away from their dark world to the world of adventure which is represented by the ships and the world of the rich. Their houses have been compared to narrow holes where their future is foggy and like an endless night. The slum children are emaciated as their bones seem to be peeping through their skins. They wear steel spectacles which have mended glass. The poet is comparing the mended glass to the small pieces of broken glass on stones as the world of the slum children is also broken due to their unfulfilled desires. They are supposed to use the discarded things of the rich. The slums are not marked on the maps but it should be done. The slums should be spotted and drawn on the maps so that the slum children should feel one with the others and realise that their slums can also be located on the maps.

The poet further moves on saying that these miserable conditions of the slum will continue unless some governor, inspector or visitor visits this place and tries to improve the conditions of the classroom in a slum. The windows of the classroom symbolise the environment of the slums which blocks the progress of the slum children. They should not bound to live in these places which are like catacombs. Let these children go out and face the world. Let them see the green fields which are a sign of prosperity. Let them lead a life of freedom represented by golden sands. Give the opportunity to express themselves freely because only those people make and create history, who fight for a cause an are able to overcome their surroundings. The slum children should also be given an opportunity of being memorable.


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