An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender

The Poet

Stephen Spender was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. His poems give voice to the concerns and the exploitation of the poorer sections in the society.

Here are a few lines from the poem School Boy by Stephen Spender. Note the picture of dismal unhappy childhood that the poet recreates in these lines.

I am glad I met you on the edge
Of your barbarous childhood

In what purity of pleasure
You danced alone like a peasant
For the stamping joy’s own sake!

How, set in their sandy sockets,
Your clear, truthful, transparent eyes
Shone out of the black frozen landscape
Of those gray-clothed schoolboys!

How your shy hand offered
The total generosity
Of original unforewarned fearful trust,
In a world grown old in iron hatred!

I am glad to set down
The first and ultimate you,
Your inescapable soul. Although
It fade like a fading smile
Or light falling from faces
Which some grimmer preoccupation replaces.

Now let’s come to An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum which echoes similar thoughts . The poet’s sympathies lie with the impoverished children of the slum who are taught Shakespeare and shown maps when they have a bleak present and a dark future awaiting them.

Summary
The children in the classroom are unique individuals but a common thread of poverty and unhappy childhood binds them to a dark life. The phrase , rootless weeds , suggests that they are unwanted like the weeds, living on the fringes of the society. The tall girl , the paper thin boy, the dreamer are all suffering from one malaise or the other. One of the students has inherited his father’s disease which has disfigured him . The only person who seem to retain his cheerfulness is the one who lives in dreams , unaware of the harsh realities that surround him.

The walls of the school have been painted with the money received in donation hence the sour cream colour of the walls. The poet emphasizes that there is no point in teaching students the high ideals of Shakespearean literature when they are unable to lead a decent life. The maps on the wall indicate a free world where one can find his way but the reality is so different ,so grim , that the poet calls Shakespeare wicked and map a bad example.

According to the poet the maps, studies of Shakespeare or great civilizations of the past hold no significance to the students as their future is dark and their windows look out to a hazy , fog-filled life that shows no change for the better. Their narrow world has a dark , lead sky which is filled with hopelessness. Though they might be tempted to steal to better lives, this is almost impossible as the fog that darkens their day will only turn into endless nights.

The poet sarcastically asks the authorities to not show the poor children , dreams which cannot be full filled and asks them to blot it all . He says ‘so blot their maps with slums as big as doom’.
In the last stanza the poet says this can change only if the visitors, the governor, the inspector became truly involved and concerned about the welfare of these poor children . If only they did something that was genuine and meaningful unlike the usual lip-service would their lives be brightened . And they would be free spirits running azure (blue ) on sands of gold , exploring the possibilities of great learning and a better future.

Questions and answers

1. What do you think is the colour of ‘sour cream’? Why do you think the poet has used this expression to describe the classroom walls?
The poet , Stephen Spender relates to the suffering of the poor children in a school in a slum . The schools walls are painted with the money received as donation, probably , given without any true intention of improving the lives of students who study there. Hence the poet calls the walls to be painted in sour cream .’ Sour’ suggests unpleasantness and lack of will.

2. The walls of the classroom are decorated with the pictures of ‘Shakespeare’, ‘buildings with domes’, ‘world maps’ and beautiful valleys. How do these contrast with the world of these children?
The children live in a state of perpetual poverty and undernourishment . Their very appearance suggests the extent of their suffering and impoverishment. The pictures adorning the walls of the classroom have nothing to do with the reality of the lives of the children . Hence the poet calls Shakespeare wicked and map a bad example in the poem.

3. What does the poet want for the children of the slums? How can their lives be made to change ?
The poet wants the politicians , law makers, the general public etc to take genuine interest in the welfare of the children . He urges them to sincerely work for the betterment of the students’ lives before attempting to teach them grandiose notions of literature and history.

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