An Elementary School Class Room in a Slum by Stephen Spender
About the poet .. Stephen Spender(1909-1995) was a author born to an English father and German mother. He championed the cause of the downtrodden in society. In some ways, he was a maverick whose non-conventional views on the underdogs of the society roiled many conservatives. He enrolled in Oxford University, but dropped out to pursue his own interests. Many times, he boasted that he hadn’t passed a single examination in his whole life. However, such lack of formal education couldn’t curb his astounding literary talent. He took up the cudgels on behalf of the have-nots of society in his essays and poems.
The poem ..
First stanza ..
Far from gusty waves …. other than this
Meaning …. The setting is a school in the midst of an impoverished slum, where pupils stricken by impoverishment and poverty come to study. The hunger, deprivation, and the inherited debility is palpable in their faces. They can scarcely concentrate in their studies. The school looks ill-maintained. There is a tall girl among the students, whose scrawny frame and rickety bones point to the curse she has inherited from her disease-stricken father. At the back of this dingy class room, a boy sits, but his attention has wandered off to a squirrel jumping around in its burrow. On the whole, the ill-lit class room looks more as an assembly of lifeless youngsters, rather than a place of vigorous intellectual activity.
Second stanza …
On sour creamy walls ……………….. stars of words
Meaning … The walls of the class room have not received a fresh coat of paint for a very long time. They look dreary and dour. Paradoxically, a few vibrant paintings adore the wall. Perhaps these have been donated. There is one of Shakespeare, another of a clear, blue, sprawling sky, and a third of a valley awash with brightly coloured flowers. There is also a world map, as if to acquaint the pupils of the world of opportunity that awaits them in later life. The paintings look so incongruous on the lifeless, repulsive walls. No wonder, the paintings do little to lift the moods of the pupils who have been condemned to lifelong sorrow and suffering. Their future is doomed. Instead of a boulevard or a highway, a narrow clogged alley winds its way leading the pupils to their future.
Third stanza ..
Surely, Shakespeare is ……………. As big as a doom
Meaning … The poet is disgusted with the placing of the portraits of Shakespeare, and the lovely landscape paintings on the wall. They seem so out of place. ‘When the pupils struggle to eat just the minimal food to meet the needs of their body and mind, when their cognitive ability is so impaired, and when they stare into a dark future, what is the relevance of Shakespeare for them?’ the poet wonders. Showing them the vibrant landscape of sunshine and sea, and the sprawling valleys with the beautiful Tyrolese valley can be a cruel joke. They can never live a life of such comfort and happiness. For the poor, deprived children, the Tyrolese valley and the blue sea and sky are so distant, almost belonging to a different world. It is certain that their life is going to be more and more insufferable as they grow up. Bereft of the minimal nourishment, their bodies have been reduced to bones, covered with a skin. They live in squalid slums, in the midst of filth and garbage. For such children, showing a world map is a travesty. The poet revolts while seeing the squalor and deprivation the children have to contend with.
Fourth stanza ..
Useless governor, inspector …….. language is the sun
Meaning …. The poet is extremely angry. He directs his wrath against the establishment who, collectively, have allowed the rut to continue. The governor, the inspector, the visitor have turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the children. The children are virtually condemned to live in the graveyard. As the custodian of the education system, they have failed these children. Indignation and anger grips the poet hard. He wants the guardians of the school system to meaningfully integrate the children with the outside world, and not simply hang a world map on the wall. He calls upon the students and the people to revolt, break free of the depressing four-walled, ill-lit class room, and run towards the open, to the sea beach, the open sky, and the golden beaches. Only through such precipitate action, they can get the deliverance from the shroud of darkness that has engulfed them, apparently, for good. Only when the children can break of the shackles of the depressing school, they can read their textbooks gainfully, and progress in life through education.
Question and answers.
Think it out ..
Q1. Tick the item that best answers the following.
(a). The girl with her head ………(i)
(b). The paper-seeming …………(ii)
(c). The stunted unlucky…………(i)
(d) His eyes live …………………….(iii)
(e) The children’s faces …………..(i)
2. What do you think is the colour of ……. The classroom walls haven’t received a fresh coat of paint for a long time. The grime sticking to them after years of neglect makes them discoloured, and dirty. By mentioning ‘sour cream’, the poet alludes to the pale yellow colour of the cream to describe the colour of the ill-maintained walls.
3. The walls of the classroom are decorated …. The contrast is stark, and shocking. The pictures and paintings depict knowledge and joy of life on earth that is far beyond the reach of the poor pupils.
4. What does the poet want ……. The poet wants the school infrastructure to be thoroughly revamped to meet the education and health needs of the students. The rotten system has to undergo a revolutionary change, so that the pupils get access to the basic needs of a growing child like quality and wholesome education, adequate attention to their nutritional needs, and a big change in the attitude of the society to the underdogs.
Students and teachers are welcome to send their questions and doubts.