An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum – Stephen Spender

In this poem Stephen Spender writes about the poor children living in slums, deprived of any real education that could help them rise in life. Trapped by their poor socio-economic status, the children in the classroom arouse no expectation that they will ever succeed in life. Yes, there is an elementary school in the slum, but the ‘education’ that is being given there does nothing for those children, because it is entirely irrelevant to their life.
The poem can be divided into two parts: the first three verses show the life of the slum children as it is – with no hope of any future, the futility of an education that the children cannot identify with, and the sickening disregard of the higher classes towards these unfortunate children.
The children in the classroom are physically and emotionally exhausted by their lives in the slum. They are ‘far far from gusty waves’ of education, of new ideas that could bring about a change in their sad lives and give them a future. The words ‘rootless weeds’, ‘pallor’, ‘weighed-down’, ‘stunted’, ‘rat’s eyes’ in the very first verse underline the insecurity, the physically adverse conditions of the children and the indifference of society towards them. The children there are tired, scared, ill – not at all the kind of children one would find in a school for the well- off. The only ‘sweet and young’ child in this class is, very obviously, not entirely normal. He lives in a world of his own, of trees and squirrels playing in them, unaware of the slum classroom. No other child could live in the slum and not be affected by it.
The walls of the classroom are yellowed by neglect and there is an air of sourness because of the innumerable dreams that are shattered in it, year after year (‘sour cream’). In the classroom there are posters and maps donated by the well-off people. They are incongruous there as the children cannot identify with the life they portray and will never be able to attain the beauty and prosperity shown in them. Shakespeare, a dome – an architectural wonder, the beautiful Tyrolese valley, a world map: of what use are they to a child whose whole world is, and has been, the slum? To the rich child, the map is an inspiration and an invitation to travel all over the world. Not so to the slum children. Again, to the poor child, the windows of the classroom limit his world. The window is generally a positive metaphor that makes change for the better possible. Here, however, the windows are foggy and lead only into ‘A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky’ (bleak images of being trapped in a dreary and hopeless existence). Instead of reaping the real benefits of education – fluent and logical thought, protection from negativity, direction and purpose (‘rivers, capes, and stars of words’) – the slum children find themselves in the same place with an unknown foggy future.
Then what is the point of acquainting them with Shakespeare and the map? By showing them beauty and the life they can never attain, the prosperous class is ‘tempting them to steal’. Surely it is unfair (‘wicked’, ’a bad example’) to show such beauty to children who spend all their dreary lives in congested homes that can hardly be called anything else but ‘cramped holes’. Their life is a bleak journey, their vision distorted by the lack of clarity of their future, with no way to end it. (‘ From fog to endless night’). What we call a ‘slag heap’ is home to these severely malnourished children. They live and die here, so why not deface their map with slums – because that is their inescapable fate. The poet suggests this almost violently – ‘So blot their map with slums as big as doom’, because nobody is doing anything constructive to take them out of the slum.
Having said this, however, the poet puts forward a plea. He says that all this can change if influential people decide to help such unfortunate children. Then that unused map can become their window to a new world. The foggy windows which limit their world, making that classroom a burial vault of broken dreams, have to be broken and the children taken to all the places they have only been told about. Only when they experience things first-hand, and are free to explore (through books, too) will they be able to overcome their difficulties and rewrite their history strongly and positively. From foggy future to a life that is as bright and strong as the sun- it is possible as well as desirable, that under privileged children be given this chance.


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