This short poem is a bit more complex than it appears at first glance. On its face, a ten-year-old boy seeking a way to avoid being bullied in school is suddenly and bluntly confronted by news of his father’s death. The school’s headmaster insensitively states, “Your father’s gone.” The unexpected shock of hearing the news causes the immediate reaction of tears, and the speaker describes the emotional effect as he sees the headmaster’s “shiny dome and brown tobacco jar / Splintered at once in tears.” Nevertheless, the blurred vision “wasn’t grief.” It is a reaction to contemplating a much more bitter fear—the terror of a young boy victimized regularly by bullies.
One would think that the normal feelings of a ten-year-old might be a kaleidoscope of sorrowful, overwhelming thoughts accompanying the loss of a parent. However, here is where the poem’s psychological complexities are succinctly expressed in the last four lines of the first stanza:
For there and then I knew
That grief has uses—that a father dead
Could bind the bully’s fist a week or two
And then I cried for shame, then for relief.
Sadness and confusion permeate this poem. The boy is in conflict and searches for solutions, which hopefully result in a sense of personal pride. Although the boy feels a touch of shame over his thoughts, he prioritizes the possibility of some temporary relief from his tormentors under the circumstances of the loss of his father. It also brings into question whether the boy’s relationship with his father had been desirable.
The speaker finds himself trapped alone in school under the guise of protection. The poet introduces the metaphor of the goldfish, which presents two perspectives. Since news of the boy’s situation was revealed, “the noise was stilled” at the school. The boy finally becomes the center of attention, and he is proud. He “flashed a sudden fin” like a goldfish displaying its grandeur. In reality, everyone around him is apathetic.
“The Lesson” introduces the theme of death through the premature coming-of-age, or loss of innocence, of a scared young boy confused about his circumstances in life. He has not yet experienced enough life to acquire knowledge about dealing with bullying, shame, pride, sorrow, and death—nor the resulting anger.