An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

 

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum is a beautifully penned down poem by Stephen Spender that exposes the glaring gaps and marginalisation that occurs ever so often in our societies. Spender is publicly a scrupulous objector and a socialist. The poet aims to portray the conditions of the youngsters residing in the slum. The poet compares the conditions of the “haves” (Privileged children) and the “have-nots ‘(Underprivileged children of slum).

 

About the poet

Stephen Spender (1909-1995) was a poet and English essayist. Spender had keen interest in politics and so, he declared himself as socialist and pacifist. His work concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle.

Rhyme scheme of the poem

The poem has been written in free verse. It does not have rhyme scheme.

Theme

In this poem, Stephen Spender deals with the theme of social injustice and class inequalities. He presents the theme by talking of two different and incompatible worlds. The world of the rich and the civilized has nothing to do with the world of narrow lanes and cramped holes. The gap between these two worlds highlights social disparities and class inequalities.

 

Central Idea

Stephen Spender has presented a true picture of the life of the school children living in the slum of Tyrolese Valley of Austrian Alpine Province. The children are in a very miserable condition due to their poverty and illiteracy. They are depressed. Their pale faces express sadness. They look lean, skinny and bonny. They are like rootless weeds which can’t resist anything for their existence. They are physically very weak and under nourished. Spender voices his concern for these children who live all their life in slums and have no opportunity to enjoy the real blessings of life. He makes a frantic appeal to the educated and affluent sections of the society to better the lot of the slum children through education. It will remove social injustice and class inequality.

 

Poem and Explanation

Stanza – 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. 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.

 

Word meaning 

Gusty waves: breezy winds

Pallor: pale, dull face

Stunted: not fully grown due to malnutrition

Gnarled: Knotted, rough

weeds: unwanted plants that grow on their own

Paper seeming boy: Very thin boy, as thin as a sheet of paper

heir: Successor

 

The poem describes an elementary school class room in a slum. These slum children look very pathetic. Their faces are pale and reflect sadness. They are ‘like rootless weeds’ as they lack proper nutrition. Moreover, they are unwanted plants which grow on their own without being cared for, totally neglected. The tall girl has a ‘weighed – down head’ as she is burdened with the load of poverty. In fact she is so subdued and suppressed that her head had bowed down with the burden of her misfortunes. The ‘paper thin’ – extremely thin boy has ‘rat’s eyes’ because the poor undernourished boy is deprived of all the basic amenities of life. He is timid like a rat and full of anxiety, he searches for food and security. This unfortunate boy suffers from malnutrition and his growth is also ‘stunted’ not properly developed. He has also inherited from his father ‘twisted bones’ – bent and distorted bones. He has inherited the poverty, disease and despair from his parents. His body is also deformed because of the twisted bones which he has inherited. He appears to be as sick as his parents. There is a sweet tender looking student who sits at the back of the class. This boy is different from the others as ‘his eyes live’ in a dream – he is dreaming and probably thinking about a better future. He is lost in his own world, therefore, not sad like the others. This boy thinks of the ‘squirrel’s game’ (metaphor). He wants to enjoy and play freely like the squirrel in the garden outside. The squirrel climbs trees and hides in their holes. The boy also dreams to be free but he cannot as he must sit in the dull and dreary classroom. In the boys imagination ‘tree room’ – the hollow in a tree, is full of fun, curiosity and mystery. This is in contrast to the gloomy classroom. 

 

Literary devices:

Simile: children are compared with rootless weed (like rootless weed)

Metaphor: boy is compared with paper as he is thin (paper seeming boy)

Repetition: use of far to stress on the distance 

 

Stanza – 2

 

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.

 

 Word meaning 

Sour: unpleasant, here refers to the colour of sour cream -off white or creamish

Donations: things given or received in charity

Dawn: early morning, sunrise

civilized dome: here, it means rising sun at the horizon which is in the shape of a dome (semi - circle)

Tyrolese valley: A beautiful ice-free valley in Austria

Sealed: shut or locked

lead: here, dark future of kids

Capes: A large piece of land that sticks out into the sea from the coast

 

The classroom is not well maintained. The pale cream walls which were painted long ago with the help of donations, make the place look more miserable and sad. Probably there is a portrait of Shakespeare on the wall. This is ironical as it is put up in a place where there is no serious teaching. ‘Cloudless dawn’ and ‘civilized dome’ suggest the monotonous life in the slum. These slums are surrounded by the civilized city and the children cannot experience the beauty of the sky at dawn and are unaware of it. All around them are concrete structures of the cities. The life in the slum contrasts with the cloudless sky at dawn and concrete structures which override the cities. There is also a picture of a beautiful valley full of sweet fragrant flowers and these children of the slum will never be able to experience this beauty. They are deprived of this beauty as they are condemned to live in the slums amidst garbage. The ‘open-handed map’ in the classroom contrasts with their world. The world given to us by god is full of all the bounties whereas the world of these slum children is full of poverty and hunger. The world which they see is not the real world. Their world is confined to the narrow, dusty streets of the slum. The map in the classroom gives them hopes and aspirations and motivates them to explore the world but they will never be able to see that world. These children can get the glimpse of the outside world from the windows and it is far beyond their reach. They are far away from nature. These slum children have a bleak and foggy future in store for them. ‘Their future is painted with a fog’ – it is blurred by hopelessness. There is no hope for the slum children. Instead of the normal blue sky they live under the ‘lead sky’ – dark and dull, polluted – shows there is no hope for them. The atmosphere hints at their monotonous life and the slum children remain confined throughout their lives confined to the filth and dirt of the narrow slum streets. They are away from the glory of natural beauty of the rivers, mountains, stars etc.

 

Literary devices:

Metaphor:

1. Walls are described to be dull as sour cream (sour cream walls)

2.  The future of the kids is described as limited (Narrow Street sealed with a lead sky)

Assonance: repetition of vowel sound ‘e’ (Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley)

Allusion: Reference to well known person or place ( Shakespeare’s  head, Tyrolese valley)

Repetition: ‘far’ repeated

 

Stanza 3

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

 

Word meaning 

Wicked: evil

Tempted: persuade

Slyly: trickily

Cramped: confined

Slag: weak

Mended: repaired

Blot: to mark with a spot

Doom: disaster

 

The children of the slum are fighting the battle of life unarmed. They are troubled by disease and despair. For them Shakespeare is ‘wicked’ and ‘map’ a bad example’. The literary excellence of Shakespeare and the scenic beauty portrayed in the map cannot relieve them from their despair. For these slum children, literary excellence is a far-fetched thing and hence seems wicked. The map on the wall gives them false aspirations as it makes them aware of the beautiful world given by god. The world of these children is confined to the narrow streets of the slums. Therefore, map is ‘a bad example’. They feel cheated in being deprived of the thrilling sensations of the sun, the ships, and the emotions of love. The ‘ship’, ‘sun’ and ‘love’ symbolize joy and happiness which these children are deprived of. Their only experience is that of hunger and poverty. To reach out to the world beyond, these children are sometimes tempted to adopt wrong means even stealing to fulfill their dreams. These slum children live in cramped holes, striving and struggling for survival in the small, dirty rooms from ‘fog to endless night’ – from foggy mornings till long endless nights, trying to meet both ends. The slum children live on ‘slag heaps’ – piles of waste material. Their world is full of dirt and garbage. These children are very weak and undernourished. They look like skeletons as their bones peep through their thin skin.

They wear ‘spectacles of steel with mended glass’ – discarded spectacles by the rich, mended (repaired) and worn. Their life is like ‘bottle bits on stones – shattered and broken like bits of bottle on a stone. They are deprived of even the basic amenities of life. Their world is comprised of the foggy slums where they live nightmares. Slums are the reality for these children, their home, where they spend their life. The maps displayed in their classroom are no reality for them. They cannot locate their slum in that map. It is urgently required to give these slum inhabitants means and opportunities to lead a dignified and civilized life.

 

Literary devices:

Metaphor: Their homes are very small like holes (cramped holes)

Simile- their repaired spectacles (like bottle bits on stones)

Alliteration: Use of ‘f’ sound (From fog)

Stanza – 4

 

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.

 

Word meaning 

Catacombs: tomb, cemetery

Azure: deep blue

 

The elementary school in the slum exists for name sake. The infrastructure is poor with hardly any serious teaching. The school springs in activity only when a governor, a school inspector or a visitor comes on a round of the school. The administrative machinery of the school also gears up at that time. Then the map becomes their window from where they can see the world beyond their slums. Since they are confined to the slums, these sights and glimpses are shut upon them as they are deprived of all opportunities and means. Their lives are shut up in the cemeteries of these slums where they slither and slog to make both ends meet. The poet hopes that these children will break free from their morbid life, from the chains of the slums. He appeals to those in power to liberate these children from the miserable slums and enable them to breathe in the fresh, beautiful and healthy environment away from the foggy slums. They should be able to bask in the open green fields and let them run free on the golden sands. Their world should not be confined to the horrendous and gory slums. The poet visualizes freedom for these children. He wants a carefree life where they get economic and social justice, where they have the right to be happy. These slum children should be able to enjoy the fundamental right of education otherwise their lives will be miserable. They should be able to learn not from the books alone but also from the world, the nature around them.

The poet ends on a note of positivity and wants opportunities to be available to these children. The people who strive for knowledge are the ones who create history. The ones who are let free are the ones who will create history. People who outshine others, who glow like the sun, who break free from the constraints of their restricted life are the ones who create history and that of diseases are ­ ‘twisted bones,

 

Literary devices

Metaphor: books and nature are expressed in form of white and green leaves (the white green leaves open)

Anaphora: Use of repeated words in two consecutive lines (Run azure And Run naked)

 

Summary

The children staying in slums have a life full of struggle and lack hope and optimism. They are far away from the velvety world outside. They lack those amenities which are available to privileged people.. They are as unwanted as the rootless weed. They can only wish for the velvety and comfortable life of the world outside. These children have no hope on their faces. Their faces are tousled and dirty. Their hair is scattered untidily around their pale faces. They lack stability. The tall girl is sitting with her head down because she is depressed and overburdened with poverty. There is a boy who is as lean and thin as paper, his miserable underdeveloped body with eyes bulging out like rat reflects the greed he has felt for an eternity. His growth is blocked, and the body appears underdeveloped and malnourished. He is an unfortunate heir who has inherited the twisted bones of his father. He is not reciting a lesson from his desk but is enumerating the diseases inherited from his father. At the back of that unlit classroom, is a sweet young boy who goes unnoticed. Dreams seem to be alive in his eyes. His eyes have that spark of dreams to be part of that world outside the classroom. He dreams of squirrels playing games in the hollow of the tree. His dreams are of the places other than his repulsive classroom. He is lost in his imagination creating his own fantasy world where he plays like a squirrel in its tree room. He is not interested in the monotonous environment of the classroom.

The poet depicts the critical condition of the pale and dingy yellow walls of the classroom. He compares the colour of the walls to “sour cream”. The classroom has a picture of Shakespeare which was probably donated. The poet further compares the gifts given as donations and the picture of Shakespeare hung on the unpleasant creamy walls depicting dejection. To them, they are of no use. Shakespeare and literature have no place in their lives. There is also a picture of a clear sky hung on the classroom walls which depicts dawn and a beautiful Tyrolese valley, which indicates beauty and hope with its bells and colourful flowers representing the world that celebrates civilization, progress and heavenly splendour. There is also a world map hung on the wall which is of no use to them as their world is narrow and stuck in the boundaries of poverty and misery. Their future is shaky, dark and foggy. Their world is confined within the narrow streets of the slum enclosed by the bluish grey sky. They are far away from rivers, seas that resemble adventure, excitement and beauty as well as from the stars that symbolize wisdom that can brighten their future.

The poet feels that Shakespeare is ‘wicked’ as he is misleading those naïve children through his words portraying the world of ships, sun and love which is not only unreal for them, but it has a negative impact on their minds. He feels that this would instigate them to steal or take unfair means as they desperately make attempts to escape from their cramped holes. Their existence is indeed, very sad. These deprived children are so skinny that it appears that they are ‘wearing’ skins. The spectacles they are wearing have glass which has been broken and mended. Their entire appearance reflects their misery and deprivation. The poet shows his indignation by suggesting that the maps on the classroom walls should show the reality of their life, it must show the huge slums instead of beautiful scenic graphics.

The poet tries to appease and appeal to the teachers, governor, inspector and visitor to become aware and sensitive and do something to improve the conditions of these deprived children. They must try to align the world and transform their map unlike the map of children with amenities. The poet hopes that the bureaucrats and authorities understand their moral responsibilities and free these deprived ones from traps of their graves (A metaphor for the slum). He wants all the barriers that keep them away from achieving the true education to be broken down. They should be given an opportunity to come out of their narrow and shabby lanes and extend to the blue sky & waves rising over the golden sands. The children must be given the freedom to experience the wholesome bounties of nature’s fields. These deprived children must be taught to express themselves freely. He wishes that all distinctions that separate them from merging with the outside world be removed from their lives and that they too may have hope of a better, more secure future.

Extract Based Questions (4 Marks)

Question.1. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


“ And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this map, their world,
Where all their future’s pointed with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky Far far from rivers, capes and stars of words.”


(a) Who are the ‘children’ referred to here?
(b) Which is their world?
(c) How is their life different from that of other children?
(d) Why is the future of these children “painted with a fog”?


Answer. (a) The ‘children’ referred to here are the poor children living in the slum.
(b) Their world comprises of the dull and unpleasant classroom and its windows, amongst the dirty surroundings of the slum
(c) The children of the slum are emaciated and poverty-stricken, as against the other children who are healthy and have all the comforts and luxuries of life. The life of the slum children is filled with darkness and hopelessness.
(d) The future of these children is dark and uncertain. So, the speaker says that it is painted with a fog.

Question.2. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


“ And, yet for these .
children, these windows, not this map. their world,
Where all their future’s painted with a fog.”


(a) Which map is the poet talking about in the above lines?
(b) To what do the words, these windows, their world”, refer?
(c) What sort of future do the slum children have?
(d) Why is all their future painted with a fog?


Answer. (a) The poet is talking about the map which depicts only the world of the rich and the important, the world that comprises civilised domes, bells, flowers and the scenic beauty of nature.
(b) “These windows” refers to the windows of the school classroom where the slum children are sitting. “Their world” refers to the world of the poverty-stricken slum dwellers. It has narrow lanes, small congested houses, foggy skies and dim classrooms.
(c) The future of the slum children is dark and uncertain. They have no hopes for their future.
(d) Their future is painted with a fog as it is not clear. They are not well-educated, and there is no one to guide them.

Question.3. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


“With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal….
For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes From fog to endless night?”


(a) Who are ‘them’ referred to in the first line? “
(b) What tempts them?
(c) What does the poet say about their lives?
(d) What do you understand by “from fog to endless night”?


Answer. (a) ‘Them’ here refers to the poor, emaciated children of the slum.
(b) They are tempted by all the beautiful things of the world, the luxuries and the lifestyle that the rich enjoy. The are tempted to steal as they cannot possess these otherwise.
(c) The children of the slum live amidst dirty surroundings in cramped houses which are dark and unpleasant. The poet is not happy with the way these children are compelled to live.
(d) “From fog to endless night” means that from morning till night the poor children of the slum have a miserable existence; they suffer from morning to night everyday.

 

Question.4. Read the extracts given below and answer the questions that follow.

 

‘……….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?
(b) What has he inherited?
(c) Who is sitting at the back of the dim class?
(d) Explain, “reciting a father’s gnarled disease.”
or
(a) Who is the ‘unlucky heir’ and what has he inherited?
(b) What is the stunted boy reciting?
(c) Who is sitting at the back of the dim class?
(d) How has the ‘unlucky heir’ been depicted here?


Answer. (a) The boy with stunted growth and twisted bones is the ‘unlucky heir’.
(b) He has inherited the gnarled disease of his father, and as a result, his growth remains stunted.
(c) An unnoted, sweet young boy is sitting at the back of the dim class. He is dreaming of squirrels playing games on trees.
(d) The boy with stunted growth has inherited a disease from his father, which makes him a living example of his father’s poverty and suffering.
or
(a) The boy with stunted growth and twisted bones sitting at the desk, is referred to as ‘unlucky heir’ because he has inherited the gnarled disease of his father that makes him a living example of his father’s sufferings.
(b) The stunted boy is reciting his lessons, but due to his knotty disease, his voice is weak and sick.
(c) At the back of the dim class, a boy is sitting who has a sweet nature. He is dreaming of
squirrels playing games on trees. ‘
(d) The ‘unlucky heir’ has been depicted here as one with stunted growth and twisted bones.

Question.5. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around 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?
(b) Why do you think the tall girl is sitting with a weighed down head?
(c) Give two phrases which tell us that the children are under-nourished.
(d) What is the condition of the boy?


Answer. (a) The children are compared to rootless weeds’.
(b) The girl is sitting with a weighed down head probably because she is depressed due to abject poverty or family tussles.
(c) The phrases are ‘like rootless weeds, and ‘the paper-seeming boy with rat’s eyes’.
(d) The boy sitting in the classroom is as thin as paper, due to malnutrition. He has bulging eyes like that of a rat.

Question.6. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


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?
(b) Explain, “from fog to endless night.”
(c) What does the reference to ‘slag heap’ mean?
(d) How do they live in their holes?


Answer. (a) Shakespeare has been described as ‘wicked’ because the children are not aware of his literary genius. In their school, hardly any learning takes place, as they are troubled by hunger, despair and failed aspirations.
(b) With reference to the passage, ‘from fog to endless night’ refers to early morning to late night. It means that every day is the same for the slum children.
(c) The bloodless bodies of the poor children are referred to as ‘slag heap’.
(d) They live like rats in their cramped little holes. Their houses are small, dirty and congested. Fog and darkness dominate their lives.

 

Question.7. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


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?
(b) What would they break?
(c) What does the poet want for them?
(d) What other freedom should they enjoy?


Answer. (a) The word ‘they’ refers to inspectors, visitors, governors and those who are in authority.
(b) They would break the grim walls of the slum children’s world which shut the children off from our world.
(c) The poet wants that these children should be properly educated, so that they get the energy and warmth of the sun which is symbolic of light and knowledge.
(d) The slum children should get adequate opportunity to know the world and find their place under the sun.

Question.8. Read the extract given below and answer the questions that follow.


………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?
(b) What sort of life do these children lead?
(c) Which figure of speech is used in the last line?
(d) What does ‘slag heap’ refer to?


Answer. (a) The images used to describe the slums are ‘foggy slum’ and ‘slums as big as doom’.
(b) The homes of these children are very cramped and dingy. They are almost like holes and these children live in them like rats. They are deprived of the picturesque beauty and gift of nature.
(c) The figure of speech used in the last line is a simile, ‘slums as big as doom’.
(d) ‘Slag heap’ refers to the hunger-stricken bodies of the slum children, which seem to be garbage heaps.

Short Answer Type Questions (3 Marks, 30-40 words)

Question.1. What change does the poet hope for in the lives of the slum children? Or What does the poet want for the children of the slums?


Answer. The poet wishes for a better life for the children of the slums. They should have access to education because education is the key to prosperity. They should be given countless opportunities to explore the world. They need to break free from the confines of their weak world into a world which should welcome them with open arms. The self-centred attitude of the affluent classes should be broken to relieve the children from all misery.

 

Question.2. To whom does the poet in the poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ make an appeal? What is his appeal?


Answer. The poet makes an appeal to his readers, especially the educated and well-off people, to help the poor children of the slum come out and get free from their miserable surroundings. His appeal is that these children should be given quality education, because education holds the key to their emancipation.

 

Question.3. Which words/phrases in the poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ show that the slum children are suffering from acute malnutrition?

 

Answer. The words/phrases in the poem which show that the slum children are suffering from acute malnutrition are “the hair torn round their pallor”, “paper seeming boy”, “stunted, unlucky heir of twisted bones” and “wear skins peeped through by bones.”

 

Question.4. The poet says, “And yet, for these children, these windows, not this map, their world.” Which world do these children belong to? Which world is inaccessible to them?


Answer. The children belong to the world of poverty and misery in the dingy slum areas. The world of the rich, with all the comforts and luxuries of life, is inaccessible to them.

 

Question.5. How does the poet describe the classroom walls?

 

Answer. The walls of the classroom are pale and dirty. They are decorated with the donated picture of Shakespeare, a scene depicting buildings with domes, a world map and beautiful valleys, which stand in sharp contrast to the dingy, dismal and gloomy atmosphere in which these slum children live.

 

Question.6. What message does Stephen Spender convey through the poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’?

Answer. The poet wants that the children of the slums should get rid of their dismal lives. They should be educated and brought out from their ugly surroundings. He feels that it is the responsibility of the affluent classes to free these poor children from the life of hunger and misery.

Question.7. Why does Stephen Spender say that the pictures and maps in the elementary school classroom are not meaningful?

Answer. The pictures and maps in the school are meaningless for the slum children because they stand in sharp contrast to the dingy, dismal and gloomy atmosphere in which these slum children live. These things have no meaning for those who are deprived of the basic amenities of life.

Question.8. What does the poet wish for the children of the slums?


Answer. The poet wants that the children of the slums should break free from the rut of their dreary existence. They should experience nature at its best, as well as frolic around in a carefree manner. They should be educated and be able to transform themselves.

Question.9. Why does the poet Stephen Spender call the map a bad example?


Answer. The map represents the beautiful and wonderful world outside. However, this world is beyond the reach of the slum children. Their hopes and aspirations are confined to their world of despair and diseases. So Stephen Spender calls the map a bad example.

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