An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum | Summary and Analysis

Critical Analysis of An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender


Summary of An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum 

An Elementary School  Classroom in a Slum is hard-hitting poem by Stephen Spender which questions the socio-economic setup that dictates the way in which the childhood and education of countless nameless children of the poor are affected. Adopting a somber, hopeless tone in the beginning, the poetic voice verges on frustration before voicing a vehement appeal for political will and collective effort to shape the children’s lives for the better.

The socio-economic dictates of the capitalist society has created a form of education which is used more often to sustain the status-quo than to serve any  meaningful purpose for the children of the poor. At its best,  it is a form of charity and at its worst, a form of exploitation. Severely malnourished children are goaded towards reciting meaningless  lines in this form of education. They are given dose after dose of Shakespeare instead of decent diet and are exposed to limitless maps of the world while at all times being confined to claustrophobic hovels.  The poet resents the fact that rose-tinted picture of the perfect world is provided to those who lead utterly imperfect lives. In short, education provides them a glimpse of the ideal life which doesn’t correspond to their lived experience and immediate reality. The poem therefore  advocates for the improvement of their living conditions and providing them with the type of education that may  reflect the reality they live in and equip them to change it for the better.

In the final stanza, the poet appeals to the authorities – teachers, inspectors and administrators to seriously and sincerely muster the political will and acknowledge the moral responsibility  in order to help the children stand for themselves and help them  write a history of their own. An elementary school classroom in a slum line by line explanation has been given below.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum  | Summary and Analysis


An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Analysis, Stanza 1

Far, far from gusty waves these children’s faces.

Like rootless weeds, the hair torn round their pallor:

 The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-seeming boy,

with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir

 Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,

 His lesson, from his desk. At back of the dim class

 One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,

Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.


      An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum deals with the central themes of poverty, education and  childhood. It takes a classroom in the slum to critique the economic system which has created slums and the ineffective nature of education that is imparted to the children of the poor. In that sense, the poem can be viewed as a  social commentary .

The poem seeks to demonstrate  the distance between the representation of the world taught inside the classroom and the world existing outside the windows of the classroom. The first  line of the poem emphasizes this distance and the literary device of repetition and  is used to emphasize this reality:

“Far, far from the gusty waves

Far from resembling the strong and forceful (gusty) waves of the ocean, the faces of the children look like rootless weed with their hair torn around their pale, malnourished faces. A simile (like rootless weeds) is used to describe the manner in which society perceives and treats the students of the class. The children of the poor do not have any foundation, any route or any social security to help them grow in one place. Rather,  they are tossed about and are treated as unwanted elements (weeds) by a large section of   society. The  theme of vulnerability and uncertainty and  is beautifully dealt with in this stanza.

The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-seeming boy, with rat’s eyes.  

One look at the description of the students in the abovementioned lines  demonstrates how far a resemblance the students bear to the gusty waves of  the first stanza. A tall girl stands with her bowed down head,  far from being lively and energetic. She stands with his “head weighed down” possibly due to  the burden of poverty.  The girl is definitely not happy.

Another image is that of a “paper-seeming  boy with rat’s eyes“. A brilliant metaphor is used to describe the unfortunate kid who is so thin that he looks as if made of  paper. The choice of the word ‘paper‘ in the metaphor used to describe the poor boy  in an elementary school slum is all the more apt as it uses a single word ‘paper‘,  to pool in the dual themes of poverty and education around which  the poem revolves. Poverty has made him look just like just another object used in the classroom: paper. The metaphor of the ‘rat’s eyes‘ provides an indication of starvation and also highlights the desperate scavenging efforts that result from starvation. Notice, the   first stanza  uses one element  from the plant (weed) and the animal (rat) kingdom to describe the way in which children of the poor are perceived in the  society. This dehumanization of the children of the poor is further complicated if one is to extend the rat metaphor. One might  question what is that the boy with ‘rat’s eyes’ doing in a place where he seems to be so uncomfortable and feels so confined? This may lead us to question what is the nature of the place which has confined a boy with rat’s eyes? Is it a merely a classroom or a … trap? Though the space may look like a classroom,  it actually functions like a rattrap. This line of thought is infact supported by the lines in the final stanza of the poem: Break O break open … This appeal may be seen as a call to breaking open the trap of ineffective education system and set the children free.

The stunted, unlucky heir

Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,

His lesson, from his desk. At back of the dim class

 One unnoted, sweet and young.  

His eyes live in a dream,

Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.


We come across another boy who has  inherited a  genetic disorder from his father due to which he cannot stand and has to remain seated while reciting the lesson.

The last boy is a very young kid who is too young to understand or feel the effects of poverty he has been born into due to which he shows no visible signs of the effects of poverty but thinks  more often of squirrels’ games and his mind wanders in places other than the classroom. A stanza wise explanation of an elementary school classroom in a slum is provided below.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Analysis, Stanza 2

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,

Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.

Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map

Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these

Children, these windows, not this map, their world,

Where all their future’s painted with a fog


The dingy, rancid atmosphere of the class is highlighted by the use of “sour cream walls“. The effectiveness of the phrase can be understood by the fact that “sour cream” catches both olfactory (smell) and ocular (sight) senses of the reader. The room is filled with donationsa Shakespeare’s bust, an open handed map and then and a painting of the beautiful Tyrolese valley. This is the version of the world provided to the students. However, this version of the world  so provided ( awarding the world its world)   doesn’t match the world they actually live in. The map doesn’t provide an honest portrayal of the real world. This honest portrayal  is instead presented by the  windows of the classroom  through which the children can view the day-to-day hardship they have to endure and the pathetic conditions they live in. The children have a bleak future beyond the classroom and the  window opens to the view of a place where “all their future” is “painted with fog“. This is in sharp contrast to the beautiful Tyrolese painting donated to the classroom.

The last two lines of the second stanza contrast  the suffocating prospects which the slum education brings for the children :

A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky

 Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words


The narrow streets seem to represent the narrow prospects the children have and the lead sky which seals the roof is used to signify the limits beyond  which the children will never be able to move. Literally, the lead is a testimony of air pollution caused by industrialization – one of the direct causes  for the creation of slums and the wretched conditions in which these children find themselves. This grim reality is “far far” from the romantic image of the river, the valley and scenes created by hollow words of poets.

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Analysis, Stanza 3

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example,

With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal—

For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes

From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children

Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel

With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.

All of their time and space are foggy slum.

So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.


The tone of the poem changes from the despair to rebellion. Shakespeare, the epitome of culture and erudition is said to be wicked and the map is dubbed as a bad example. The picture of ships, sun and lake conjured by such poets  in the impressionable minds of the vulnerable children mislead them with sights of a world which they might never be able to inhabit. Moreover, by providing them a  glimpse of the unattainable, they tempt the children to resort to ways that might incite them to commit crimes. It is not only  irresponsible but also immoral to paint pretty pictures of a perfect place  to children who live in suffocating hovels (cramped holes), who move from one endless night to another without any dawn of hope. The children are so malnourished that they appear to be “wearing skins“. Clearly,  it is food that they need before “education”.  They wear “spectacles of steel” and that too made of “mended glass“. Their poverty shapes the lens with which they  view the world and all they can actually see is the foggy sight of the awful slums they live in  .

An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum Analysis, Stanza 4

Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,

 This map becomes their window and these windows

 That shut upon their lives like catacombs,

 Break O break open till they break the town

 And show the children to green fields, and make their world

 Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues

 Run naked into books the white and green leaves open

 History theirs whose language is the sun.



The final stanza of the poem is a vehement appeal to change the conditions of the children. The poet appeals   “government, inspector and the visitor” to gather the political will to convert the map of  theoretical knowledge to the window of lived reality  for the children. It is an appeal , a challenge and a duty to make the living conditions and the surroundings of the slum area as beautiful as those shown in the maps.  Until then, the poet asks the authorities to help the children learn from nature and nurture their childhood. The windows which confine the children  need to break and children must have an access to green fields, the open sky and all the wonders of nature. The poem uses a brilliant imagery to describe the blue sky and the open space that the children should at least be provided with (Run azure on gold sands).  The need for change in their material conditions through economic upliftment is symbolized by the gold sand.  Only when this happens, will  the children be able to think on their own, reclaim their lives and write a history of their own. History will then be written by these very children who speak in the language of sun.



An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender | About the author

An English poet with killer looks (apparently the New York Times didn’t fail to mention his looks while writing his obituary), Stephen Spender was an English poet and essayist who spent most of his youthful days during the Depression, sandwiched between the First and the Second World Wars.  Belonging to a group which is frequently referred to as The Auden Group , Spender’s work is often studied along with those of W.H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil-Day Louis and Louis MacNeice. The young poets of the thirties are known for their intense engagement with social, economic and political realities which they dealt with as is strongly reflected in their works. This group of poets were open about their anti-fascist leanings and significantly adhered to the socialist cause. However the Moltov-Ribbentrop Pact ( aka. German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact) between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia disillusioned many in the group, especially Spender who had strong associations with the Jewish community.

Some of Spender’s works are the World Within World, The Edge of Being, Nine Experiments, The Still Centre and The God That Failed among others.

Initially, he was strongly attracted to the ideals of socialism and voiced the same through his artistic expression. An Elementary  School  Classroom in A Slum is a fine example of the political stand which takes a socialist approach while studying the policy of the government in relation to education





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