An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary
by Stephen Spender

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An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary

(Poetry for Students)

Stanza 1

The opening stanza of "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" provides a clear, dreary depiction of the students in the classroom. The first child is a "tall girl with [a] weighed-down head." This girl is physically and emotionally exhausted, as if all life has been dredged from her body and sapped from her mind. Her classmates are in no better condition. "The paper- / seeming boy, with rat's eyes" is paper-thin and weak. His eyes are defensive and scared, like a scavenger, a rat. His prospect for survival, let alone success, is bleak. Another student, "the stunted, unlucky heir / Of twisted bones," is the victim of a genetic disorder. Spender writes that the boy has inherited his "father's gnarled disease"; he has been left disfigured, trapped in a physically challenged body.

Spender then describes the boy "at back of the dim class," stating, "His eyes live in a dream." This last student represents both a glimmer of wary hope and a shiver of mental damnation. It is unclear whether he is dreaming of a life he may achieve or has lost his mind to the "squirrel's game." This vague distinction between these two conflicting interpretations exposes all the students' futures: there is little or no expectation that they will succeed, and the best they can hope for is to keep their sanity and not fall victim to a faux reality. Beneath it all, the boy's dreaming eyes may harbor an honest desire for true success. This last boy, "unnoted, sweet and young," may understand his position in society and see the sadness of his fellow students. With this understanding, he may represent hope for social change, instead of merely being an individual who has lost his mind.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, Spender describes the classroom and its contents. The classroom is full of "donations." The children are from the lowest class; they are the children of proletarians. The classroom is constructed through donations of others' capital. All that the students possess comes from their oppressors, the bourgeoisie. The upper class, which holds these children in their place, also offers them their only tools to escape. The maps, books, and "Shakespeare's head" that give the students hope of something outside their dreary existences are gifts from the very hands that clamp them down in their economic and social position.

Spender writes,

. . . for these 
Children, these windows, not this map, their 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.

The "donations" may give a glimpse of some world to the students, but not of their world. The students do not perceive their world as like the one depicted in the classroom's "donations." It is not the "belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley" but instead a foggy, "narrow street sealed in with a lead sky." Their future is bleak, unknown, and dreary. The children in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" are trapped by their social and economic status as children of proletarians.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, Spender responds cynically to the reality of the students' futures. He calls Shakespeare "wicked" and the map a "bad example." He writes that the stories from the books of "ships and sun and love" are "tempting them [the students] to steal." The world presented by the bourgeoisie to the students in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" is intended to lure them and drag them into a life of crime. Spender's cynicism is a commentary on the upper class and their circumventing tactics in the effort to hold a firm grip on lower-class citizens. By exposing the students to the beauties of the world, the bourgeoisie appear to be assisting the proletarians' children, instilling in them hope for something better. However, Spender sees the bourgeoisie's "donations" as something far more evil. His cynical view of the "donations" is that they were given not to infuse the students with hope but rather to force them to commit crime and...

(The entire section is 1,046 words.)