Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

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. 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 the tree room, other than this.

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 world, are 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.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, and 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.

Unless, governor, teacher, 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 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 is theirs whose language is the sun.

A note: I stopped teaching CBSE 5 years ago and I'm out of touch. So I haven't really worked on the explanations and edited them. You might find some of the explanations not up to the mark especially this poem. You will surely find better explanations on the net. One such site recommended by one of the readers which is really good and tailor made for CBSE is http://englishportal12.blogspot.in/?view=mosaic 

Stephen Spender highlights the plight of slum children by using vivid images and apt words to picture a classroom in a slum. Through this he touches, in a subtle manner, the themes of social injustice and inequalities.

Lines 1, 2
The opening line of the poem uses an image to contrast the slum children’s faces with those of others. The image used is ‘gusty waves’ indicating brightness, verve and animation. But these are missing from faces of these children. The next image of ‘rootless weeds’ produces double effect. ‘Weeds’ indicate being unwanted and ‘rootless’ indicates not belonging. The slum children are like ‘rootless weeds’ unwanted by society and not belonging to society. Their uncombed hair fall on their pale faces.

Lines 3 to 8
Next, a few of the slum children are described. There is a tall girl whose head is weighed-down with sadness, disinterestedness or shame or a mixture of all the three. She is probably over-aged for the class. Another boy is thin, emaciated like paper and his eyes pop out from his thin body looking furtive like rat’s eyes. He seems to have inherited stunted and twisted growth of bones from his father. Spender has used the word ‘reciting’ to show that instead of studying/reciting, a normal activity in school, the boy had only his inherited crippling disease to show/recite in the class. This could suggest that the boy’s condition seem to have arisen because of his poverty especially his inability to avail heath services at the right time. Right at the back of the badly lit room is an unnoticed young boy. He is probably too young for poverty to have stifled his childish imagination. He daydreams of the squirrel’s game and about the tree house, absent mentally from the classroom.

Lines 9 to 12
Spender then describes the classroom. The word ‘sour’ used to describe the cream walls of the classroom indicates its derelict condition. Contradicting this state and the slum children are Shakespeare’s head indicating erudition, the picture of a clear sky at dawn and a beautiful Tyrolese valley indicating beauty of nature and hope, dome of an ancient city building standing for civilization and progress and a world map awarding the children the world. The lines “Open-handed map / Awarding the world its world” could refer to the map of the world hanging on the wall of the classroom giving/showing (awarding) everyone (the world) the world out there to explore and know (its world).

Lines 13 to 16
But the world of the slum children is the limited world that can be seen though the windows of the classroom and not what the map promises. All these seem ironic when contrasted with the misery and hopeless condition of the slum children. Their future is foggy, bleak and dull. Their life/world is confined within the narrow streets of the slum enclosed by the dull sky far away from rivers, seas that indicate adventure and learning and from the stars that stand for words that can empower their future. 'Lead sky' means a dullsky or a dimly lit sky. This symbolises the bleak, dull life and future of the slum children.
Lines 17 to 24
The poet feels that the head of Shakespeare and the map are cruel temptations for these children living in cramped houses (holes), whose lives revolve around (slyly turns) dullness (fog) and hopelessness (endless night) as they imagine and long for (steal) adventure(ships), for a better future (sun) and for love. Their emaciated wasted bodies compared to slag (waste) heaped together seemed to be wearing the clothes of skin covering their peeping bones and wearing spectacles of steel with cracked glasses looking like bottle bits mended. The slum is their map as big as the doom of the city buildings and their life (time and space) foggy and dim. The poet repeatedly uses the word fog to talk about the unclear, vague and dull life of the slum children.

Lines 25 to 32
The only hope of a life beyond the slums that enclose their lives like catacombs is some initiative by the governor, inspector of schools or a visitor. The poem ends with the poet fervently hoping that slum children will have access to better education and a better way of life. He uses the words ‘Break o break open’ to say that they have to break out from the miserable hopeless life of the slum world so that they can wander beyond the slums and their town on to the green fields and golden sands (indicating the unlimited world). These can become their teacher and like dogs lapping up food hungrily, they can learn directly (run naked) from the open pages (leaves) of nature and the world which is sustained (whose language) by the sun standing for energy and life.

If you felt that this information has been useful for you and if you feel inclined to help orphans kindly donate money to the orphanage that my friend runs. First, take a little time to go through its website: