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Summary on An Elementary School Classroom in the Slum

Updated on May 4, 2016

Summary of An Elementary School-Classroom in a Slum

Stephen Spender (1909-1995) was an English poet and essayist. In 1930 Spender took a keen interest in politics. He was a socialist and pacifist. In his poem ‘An Elementary school Classroom in a Slum’ Spender portrays the social injustice and class inequalities prevailing in those days.

‘Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces…’

Spender in this stanza depicts the children’s appearance and the remotely located classroom, away from the gusty waves, rather packed in a room, a dimly lit room where they learn their lessons; unlike a normal school with huge windows and brightly lit rooms. Their faces are pale and the child’s unkempt hair is compared to the rootless weeds driven by the wind. Furthermore a tall girl with a stoop in her head, a paper boy very light compared to a paper and eyes to that of a rat’s eyes, depicting a hunger gleam in his eyes. Yet another child is described with a hereditary disease, stunted growth and twisted bones. At the back of the class is an unnoticed sweet young lad whose eyes can see pictures like that of a squirrel on a tree, one can imagine beyond the dim classroom.

‘On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head...’

In this stanza Spender describes the classroom. A classroom with no blackboards for their lessons. The sour cream walls serve as a board on which the children contribute their ideas and write them on the walls to which the poet refers to as donations. The knowledge contributed by them on the walls is referred to as Shakespeare’s head. The children learn their lessons enclosed within the four walls: they learn about cities, the Tyrolese valley - an Austrian Alpine province all within the closed room. The poet thus describes it as an open-handed map. The glimpses of these places is a part of their world. Their future is uncertain. He continues to describe their situation as sealed within a narrow street and the dull skies.

He refers the children to windows through whom we can see the country’s future. Moreover he says that their world, their future is foggy. They are far from flowing knowledge, from reaching mountains, and from touching the sky – from reaching the highest.

‘Surely Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example…’

In this stanza Spender describes the untold justice done by the politicians, who have abandoned the children in the slum, with improper education.

The map is not a good example since it does not give them a chance to go to real places and explore. Similarly, Shakespeare with all his knowledge written down in literature is of less importance to these kids since they are deprived of their books.

He describes the poor health of the children - skinny and bony; their meagre provisions, no books, their time and living is confined to the limited space where there is no means of flow of knowledge and no means to explore. They are shut within like catacombs-the underground cemeteries.

He calls the class room a cramped hole for each child and a secluded spot with ill-fed children. He questions whether this condition would grow from bad to a never ending worse condition that is from fog to endless night

In fact the entire picture of the condition of this slum resembles a blot on their map – a big doom or damnation unless their condition is improved.

‘Unless the governor, inspector, visitor…’

‘Unless the governor, an inspector, or a visitor pays a visit to the school and is aware of what these poor kids are deprived of: their proper education and equal right to be educated there is no other means where the children can have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the outside world.


‘Break O Break open till they break the town…’

Here Spender utters a cry for the children’s freedom and for their rights to education. A cry to let the children to be exposed to the green fields, the gold sands and to enable them to read books.

‘White and green leaves open…’

Spender’s cry for the children’s access to books and nature is that the leaves may unfold the knowledge from books and nature. Knowledge revealed like that of the sun whose rays reach to all the dark corners. Thus transforming their history, their history told by the sun day unto day sending forth knowledge and enlightening every dark mind.


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