What is an “open-handed map” in “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum”?

The “open-handed map” in Stephen Spender's “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” at first seems to stand for the opportunities, hope, and new experiences of a vast world. Later, though, the map is revealed as ironic, for the students in this classroom live in a much narrower world.

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In the poem “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” Stephen Spender describes a classroom and its students. There are pictures on the walls and one “open-handed map.” This map, he continues, is “awarding the world its world.” It is showing the vastness of the world and allows the whole world to come before the eyes of the students. It symbolizes hope and opportunities, the possibility of stepping out into new experiences.

Yet for these students, this symbolism turns cynical. Their world is small and limited. They are trapped in a “narrow street” under a “lead sky” in the middle of a “foggy slum” filled with broken glass and twisted metal. The map, which should be a window to the world, taunts them with possibilities they will likely never know, with opportunities that are not theirs. It is a “bad example,” for they only know the world of their slum, and for them, the map might as well depict some fantasy world that doesn't even exist.

The image of the “open-handed map,” then, is an ironic one, for there is nothing at all open-handed in the world these children live in. We can see that in the descriptions of these students. A girl is weighed down already. A boy has “twisted bones.” Another child is “sweet and young,” living in a dream, but no one pays any attention to him. They are “rootless weeds,” already suffering the effects of their circumstances, and the “open-handed map” hands them nothing at all.

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