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).
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.
This was a brief summary of Stephen Splendor’s An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum. To read the summary of Ozymandias, visit here!