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An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary in English by Stephen Spender

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Poem by Stephen Spender About the Poet

Stephen Spender (1909-1995), an English poet and essayist, was one of the pioneers of poetic movement in the 1930s.. Spender took a keen interest in the social and political problems of his times. As a social reformer and pacifist of his time, he questions the value of education and the morals and ethics of individuals.

The trials and tribulations of the post-World War, Europe finds expression in Spender’s verse and prose. Books by Spender include ‘Poem of Dedication’, ‘The Edge of Being’, ‘The Creative Element’, etc.

Poet Name Stephen Spender
Born 28 February 1909, Kensington
Died 16 July 1995, Westminster, London, United Kingdom
Spouse Natasha Spender (m. 1941–1995), Inez Pearn (m. 1936–1939)
Education Gresham’s, University College, University College School Junior Branch, University of Oxford
Nominations Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction
An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary by Stephen Spender
An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary by Stephen Spender

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Introduction to the Poem

In this poem, Spender depicts the injustice which prevails in society. He talks of social injustice and class inequalities, denial of opportunities to slum dwellers, and also expresses his thoughts on the widening gap between the rich and the poor. He somewhere or the other seems to be hitting hard at the capitalist economy, which helps the rich to get richer and the poor poorer.

The Civil Rights Movement in America had gained pace and Spender’s poem supports it when he exposes the condition of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have notes’. The poem lucidly brings forth the miserable condition of the children of the slum and the inadequate educational facilities provided to them. The poem talks of racial discrimination and is a socialist proclamation that a country can prosper only if education reaches to the downtrodden in the society.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Theme

  • In ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’, Spender beautifully brings out the themes of social injustice and class inequalities.
  • Poverty is also another theme of the poem. The poet creates an image of children in poverty. It is poverty that has caused the children to be weighed down, diseased and twisted. The poet believes that poverty is created through the oppressive power of capitalism.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Stanza Wise Explanation Summary in English

The poem describes a primary school in a slum. Children studying in the slum classroom depict the social injustice and perpetual poverty, prevailing among the slum dwellers.

In the first stanza, Spender describes the miserable condition of the children. The faces of the children are unlike the usual children of schools. Instead of being exuberant and energetic, they are like rootless weeds, withered and worn out. They are unclean and untidy, as they are malnourished, sick and hungry. Just as weeds are not wanted in the garden, so are these children of the slum unwanted in the society. They have pale faces. Their hair is uncombed. A tall slim girl has her head bowed down as though she is exhausted physically because of malnutrition and emotionally because of poverty. The other students of the class are also in the same situation. There is a boy, who is as thin as paper, again because of malnutrition and lack of civic amenities.

He has eyes like that of a rat, searching for food and betterment. Another child in the class, who is a victim of genetic disorder, has gnarled bones and stunted growth. He has inherited this debilitating disease from his father and recites his lesson from his desk in a mellow and weak voice. In one corner of this poorly-lit and ill-equipped class, is a sweet, unnoticed young child lost in the world of his dreams. The dull and monotonous classroom does not interest him and hence, his mind deviates towards the squirrel in her tree room. He too, dreams of fun and frolic in an open space.

In the second stanza, the poet describes the dirty classroom. On the walls are displayed the names of people who have given donations. The bust of Shakespeare is displayed in the clear background of the sky. Walls have pictures of the beautiful Tylorese Valley as well as a map of the world. The children’s eyes can only view a narrow road enclosed with a dull sky. It is quite a dreary and depressing place for children.

In the third stanza, the pensive poet suddenly turns belligerent (aggressive) and feels that Shakespeare is ‘wicked’. This is because he misleads the children. He shows them a beautiful world of ships, sun and love which is not only unreal for them but has a corrupting influence on these children and instigates them to steal and try to escape from their cramped holes. Their existence is indeed very sad.

These emaciated children are so thin that it appears that they are ‘wearing’ only skins. The spectacles they are wearing have glass which has been broken and mended. Their entire appearance reeks of their deprivation. The poet shows his outrage by suggesting that the maps on their walls should show huge slums instead of beautiful scenic graphics.

Finally, in the last stanza, the poet reveals the appalling truth that there can be no change for the better unless a governor, a school inspector or an educationist or a visitor comes to the school. The map in their classroom is the only medium for the children to view the world outside their slums. The windows of their classroom shut them and confine them to their world of poverty and helplessness.

Next, poet appeals to those people who are in power to liberate these slum children from the horrendous life that they are leading. He also exhorts the people themselves, to break open these windows which appear to have sealed the fate of these children. He would like to see these children bask in the educational facilities in this world, and run carefree on the golden sands and enjoy a new lease of life and freedom. The poet earnestly desires that each and every child should be able to enjoy the fundamental right to freedom. They should have access to all kinds of books, new as well as old. They should also be able to learn from nature around them.

Spender ends the poem on a positive note as he expresses his belief that people who are ignited by the spirit of knowledge and learning are the ones who create history. It is the moral liability of everyone to break barriers between the haves and the have-nots, and give a meaningful education to all. For history remembers only those people who are educated and have enlightened themselves for a better world.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary Reference-to-Context Questions

Read the extracts given below and answer the questions that follow.

1. 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.

a. What are the children compared to?
The children have pale faces and torn and scattered hair all over their faces like rootless weeds. A thin boy is compared to a paper.

b. Why do you think the tall girl is sitting with a weighed-down head?
The tall girl is sitting with a weighed-down head because she is depressed of being poor. She also feels humiliated and embarrassed because of the lack of education.

c. Give two phrases which tell us that the children are undernourished.
(i) rootless weeds
(ii) rat’s eyes

d. Name the poetic device used in the second line.

2. 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.

a. Who is the ‘unlucky heir’ and what has he inherited?
The stunted boy with twisted bones sitting in the slum classroom is the unlucky heir. He has inherited the deformity of gnarled disease.

b. What is the stunted boy reciting?
The stunted boy has inherited the disease and despair of his parents and has become a carrier of his father’s disease and poverty. He is reciting his lesson in the class from his desk.

c. Who is sitting at the back of the dim class?
One unnoted sweet and young dreamer, who dreams about a squirrel’s game, is sitting at the back of the dim class. He is dreaming of his future.

d. What is the ‘tree room’?
It is the squirrel’s nest or hole from which the squirrel is moving in and out.

3. 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.

a. Which walls have been referred to in these lines?
They are the walls of a classroom in an elementary school in a slum.

b. What is meant by ‘sour cream walls’?
The walls are damp, unpleasant and dirty. They have not been painted freshly and is pealing off the surface.

c. What donations are there on the walls?
On this wall many donated items have been put up that represent different world. A bust of Shakespeare and domes of huge buildings in the cities. There is also a reflection of the early morning cloudless sky on the wall. There is the beautiful picture of the valley of Tyrolese and the world map.

d. Explain, ‘Awarding the world its world’.
The rich people who have drawn these maps have depicted these places that are unreachable for these children. They are giving the world its world which however, does not belong to them.

4. 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.

a. Who are ‘these children’? What do ‘these windows’ refer to?
‘These children’ are the poor children living in a slum. ‘These windows’ are the windows of the classroom where the children are now sitting.

b. What has been said to be the world for these children?
The narrow street under the dull sky has been said to be their world. Their fate is sealed by the windows in the classroom, and does not go beyond as the map suggests.

c. What has been said about their future?
Their future is painted with fog. It means that the poor children have no bright hopes about their future. There is no one to guide them, their future is not clear and is sealed by the darkness of the sky that is above the narrow street they live in.

d. Explain the importance of the last line.
These children have no access to the beauties of nature, they cannot see the rivers or the capes, or the stars of words. The highly literate people of the world will never be known to them.

5. 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.

a. Why is Shakespeare described as wicked?
Shakespeare is an epitome of high literary excellences, but in the slum schools, where hardly any learning takes place and the children are troubled by disease and despair, literary training is a far cry. That is why, Shakespeare has been described as wicked.

b. Explain: ‘from fog to endless night’.
The expression describes the miserable and pathetic lives of the slum children. From foggy mornings till late nights, these children make desperate attempts to live their life, sustaining it despite all odds. Their life is full of misery, hopelessness and suffering.

c. What does the reference of ‘slag heap’ mean?
The poet is comparing the extremely starved and malnourished bodies to the large pile of waste metal remains. When they sit within their classrooms, they appear to be the heaps of untidy piles of bones, or like a slag heap.

d. How do the slum children look like?
Slum children look like skeletons wearing broken glasses as spectacles.

6. 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.

a. Which two images are used to describe these slums?
The two images used to describe slums are:
(i) foggy slums
(ii) slums as big as doom

b. What sort of life do these children lead?
These children lead miserable lives. They are physically weak.

c. Which figure of speech is used in the last line?
In the last line, ‘Simile’ is used as the figure of speech.

d. What request does the poet make here?
The poet wants the maps to mention clearly the slums that they live in.

7. 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

a. What is meant by ‘this map’?
It is a map of the world which is hung on the wall in the classroom.

b. What are ‘these windows’ which the poet talks of?
They are the classroom windows from where the children could see only a narrow street and a dull sky.

c. What has been referred to as ‘catacombs’?
The little narrow homes of the slum-dwellers are referred to as ‘catacombs’. They lead a life that is shut inside the slum.

d. Why is there a mention of three categories of people?
The three categories of people are the ones who can improve the conditions of the slum.

8. 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.

a. To whom does ‘they’ refer?
‘They’ refers to the children sitting in the classroom of an elementary school in a slum.

b. What would they break?
The poet hopes that one day they would break free from the chains of the slum. They will rise above all deprivations and create a beautiful world for themselves.

c. What other freedom should they enjoy?
They should enjoy equal rights as citizens and get education entitled to them. They should have a bright future like all others.

d. Explain the last line of the extract.
The poet feels that history will be changed if the people are educated. And according to him, history is created by those who have the warmth and exposure to the sun and the brightness of the wide world.

9. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,
His lesson, from his desk. At the back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young.

a. Who is the unlucky heir?
The boy with stunted growth is the unlucky heir of his father’s gnarled disease of twisted bones.

b. What will he inherit?
All that he will inherit is his father’s gnarled disease of twisted bones.

c. Who is sitting at the back of the dim class?
A young unnoted, sweet boy is sitting unnoticed at the back of the dim class.

d. Why is the disease referred to as ‘gnarled’?
The disease has been referred to as ‘gnarled’ because it has restricted his growth and gave him twisted bones.