An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary and Analysis: 2022

The poem ‘An Elementary School classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender discusses the pathetic situation of the students in the elementary classroom in the slum. The poet discusses the problems and challenges of this situation and ends with a powerful rallying cry for equality, justice and opportunity.

Stanza 1

Right at the beginning, the poet focuses on the sad and gloomy faces of the children in the classroom.

Gusty waves represent vitality, vigour and energy that these children’s faces are missing.

Rootless refers to a sense of uncertainty that these children face in their lives… proper living quarters, no social heritage or legacy that they can claim as their own, a sense of being cast adrift, a sense of alienation and without a  proper foothold in society or life.

Weeds are unwanted and considered a nuisance that need to be removed. Similarly, these slum children are perceived as worthless things to be removed from society’s garden.

Rootless weeds are also used to describe the children’s hair. The uncombed, unwashed, dry, dirty hair around their faces are like these weeds which haven’t managed to spread its roots sufficiently deep or far to seek out the nutrients to flourish.

Pallor refers to a paleness of the face. Their faces have a dry, pale and malnourished look, hence the word is used.

The poet then describes a few students in the classroom.

He first mentions a tall girl with a weighed down head. Tall may denote that she is older than her classmates and due to her age has to do a larger share of housework than the other students. Hence she is tired and drowsy.

Metaphorically, her head may be bowed down with feelings of shame, dejection, defeat due to her poverty and/or due to the fact that she is still stuck in an elementary class

He next refers to a boy who is extremely thin due to malnourishment.

The boy’s eyes look like that of a rat due to his extremely thin face.

At the back of the gloomy classroom sits an unnoticed sweet young boy. He is still too young to have realised the sad realities of his existence. He is daydreaming of playing with squirrels in his treehouse.

Stanza 2

Sour cream walls refer to the colour of the walls which are probably simply whitewashed.

Donations probably refer to a donation box which is on a shelf on the wall. A bust of William Shakespeare also adorns the shelf on the wall.

Also on the wall is the picture of a city skyline at dawn.

Tyrol is a state in Austria which has some incredibly picturesque valleys full of flowers. A beautiful picture of such a Tyrolese valley adorns the whitewashed walls of the school.

A world map hangs on the wall of the classroom. This map is displaying the world to these children

.But for these children, the slum outside their  classroom window represents their word. Their future is uncertain. Their lives are restricted to the narrow street where their slum is situated.
Lead sky refers to the dull grayish sky that seems to turn the street into a prison for these children.

This slum is far away literally and metaphorically from the beautiful natural landscapes around the world.

Stanza 3

Shakespeare’s works deal with grand tales often set in distant lands featuring a variety of people. The map tells the children of far of countries and create a desire for exploration. But for these slum children such distant lands and adventures are nothing but harmful temptations that will lead them to steal in order to get the necessary money to indulge in these far off adventures. For these children live in tiny dwellings through the foggy days and long dark nights.

The poet refers to their slum as a slag heap. Slag is a waste by product of coal mining and when arranged in a heap, it is referred to as a slag heap. According to the poet, this slum contains the rejects or waste of society.

The slum children, being of poor families do not get sufficient food to eat. Hence they are nothing but skin and bones. The outlines of the skeleton can be seen through their skin.

Their spectecles are not new, but mended with glass that remind the poet of pieces of glass bottles stuck on the top of stone walls as an anti-theft measure.

For these slum children, ime and space consists of nothing but a slum on which sits a fog.

The poet is deeply moved by their condition and implores to the map makers to fill the world map with enormous slums so that the slum children do not feel the sadness and pain or succumb to the temptations that a view of the wider world may bring.

Stanza 4

Unless some steps are taken by people in authority and outsiders, such as governor, teacher, inspector, visitor, the children will never get a taste of the beautiful wider world beyond their slum. The world map becomes their only window to the outside world. But such windows do not allow them the access to look within. Catacombs are underground passageways. The poet compares the inaccessibility of the windows to being lost or trapped in such an underground maze of passages.

The poet implores the figures of authority and the readers to break down the walls and shackles hat hold back these children and show them green fields of the world beyond. The poet invokes images of golden sands of a beach under a blue sky facing out to an open blue sea. The poet requests the figures of authority to allow these children to explore the world not only through the white leaves of a book, but also the green leaves of nature.

The poet ends with a powerful evocative declaration. He states that the people who shall live with the same energy, vim and vigour as the sun will be the ones to become great and rise above others and create history.

He hopes that with the right kind of support and encouragement, the slum children will rise to that greatness.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Analysis and Theme

The poem deals with themes of poverty and alienation among children living in a slum. The poet uses the setting of an elementary school classroom located in a slum to explore these themes and concludes with a rallying cry for improvement in the lives of the slum children.

In the first stanza, the poet introduces us to the students in the classroom and describes some of them. The main underlying theme here is their extreme poverty and the consequent lack of any sort of enthusiasm with the sole exception of a little boy, who still retains some of his innocence. In the second stanza, the poet describes the various items in the classroom. However at the end of the stanza, he comments on the hopelessness in the children’s lives.

In the third stanza, the poet reflects that the temptations provided by the various items in the classroom such as maps, might tempt the children to steal. He goes on to describe in detail, the pathetic conditions in the day to day lives of these children.

In the fourth and final stanza, the poet raises a rallying cry for change. He urges the powers that be and perhaps the reader too, to remove the metaphorical walls that hold back these children condemning them to a life of abject poverty. He imagines a future where these children will lead happy, free and knowledgeable lives. The theme in this paragraph is that of change and optimism.


Keywords – An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary (2.5), An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Poem (2.4), Summary of An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum (2.7)

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