An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

by Stephen Spender

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An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Summary

In "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," W.H. Spender describes the dreary conditions of a lower-class schoolroom in England during the early 1900s.

  • The classroom is full of "donations" from the upper class, which the children are not able to appreciate because they are so far removed from the world depicted in the items.
  • Spender is cynical of the donations, believing that they were given to lure the children into a life of crime.
  • In the final stanza, he asks for a change that would break the cycle of poverty and oppression for these children.


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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...

(This entire section contains 1046 words.)

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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 thus be branded as thieves. As such, the bourgeoisie are readily empowered to oppress the lower class for no other reason than to protect their own families, assets, and futures from the lawbreaking hands of the proletariat.

Although Spender voices cynicism, he does not lose sight of the true victims of the injustice of the class struggle: the children. In this stanza, he continues to describe the children "on their slag heap." He returns to their thin, malnourished bodies, stating that they "wear skins peeped through by bones." They also wear "spectacles of steel / With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones." Spender is making a resounding humanist statement about the treatment of children in this poem. It appears that he is more sickened by humanity's disregard for the children than by the social and economic framework that has doomed these children to the slums.

Stanza 4

In the final stanza, Spender comes full circle. He replaces cynicism with hope, a plea for a new manifesto for the children. He is petitioning "governor, inspector, visitor" to transform the sour temptation of the bourgeoisie's donations into a reality. He begs for a change that will "break O break open" the "windows / That shut upon their lives like catacombs" and free the children from the constraints of their position in society. Spender asks that the children be shown—directly, not through "donations"—"green fields" and "gold sands."

Spender further hopes that the children will be able to "let their tongues / Run naked into books the white and green leaves open." The "white and green leaves" could be seen to represent money, bourgeoisie donations that supply the books the children use. However, with this statement, Spender is asking for a pragmatic alteration in the practical application of "donations." Given the current bourgeoisie scheme to oppress the proletariat through donations, the students either are locked in their social position or are led into a world of crime through temptation. Spender is claiming that if students are truly allowed free exploration—naked tongues running freely through donated books—then their education and their "language" will become the "sun" burning away the "fog" that has sealed their fates and doomed them to "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum."