#48 “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” (Stephen Spender)

Why teach poetry?

If you’re a conservative who believes that the main purpose of schools is to train people quickly to use skills in the service of economic growth, literature courses are at best a waste of precious taxpayer money, at worst an encouragement to the unskilled to dream their weekends away and become even less skilled.

If you’re a left-winger who believes that the main purpose of schools should be to catalyze rejection of capitalist ideology, literature courses are at best a waste of precious critical-thinking opportunities, at worst an indoctrination into how to buy pretty little leisure commodities like nice editions of Shakespeare instead of manning the barricades.

(Leave aside for the moment that there are fifty of the former for every one of the latter, and that legislatures and school boards are full of such conservatives and completely empty of such left-wingers.)

Between two such poles of thought, teaching poetry as poetry, as Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been said and thought in the world” or Aristotle’s idea of a work of art “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these
emotions,” seems pretty naïve. Neither route is going to help students succeed in the real world, as those who study the balance sheets of education (either financial or ideological) would like to define success.

In this context, Stephen Spender’s “Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” is a work of rhetoric in defense of poetry. Poetry, in Spender’s words, should “break the town,” but not in the sense of political revolution. We deserve poetry itself, as a source of beauty in the world, untied to direct political action or even to right-thinking.

The possibilities are unpredictable and unruly, involving the opportunity to “run naked into books.” But everyone, especially the less-privileged, deserves the chance to know such aesthetic pleasure. As someone tells Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “I don’t know why people who are better off always think that those less fortunate than themselves don’t want to have the good things—that they don’t want to listen to good music, eat good food or read Henry James” (NY: Random House, 2004: 221).

Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century man of letters, once asked a boy who was rowing his boat ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ch.21). We do not live by bread alone, or by computer skills, or by a subversive attitude toward ruling ideologies. Poetry keeps insisting on its role, useless though it may appear, in a happy and healthy life.


11 responses to “#48 “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” (Stephen Spender)

  1. Obviously from the descriptions in the poem this is a lower class school/district. The author starts by describing the physical state of the children. The tall girl with the weighed down head maybe she was depressed possibly from school and her surroundings. He goes on to describe the room and it’s contents as being “donations” once again maybe hinting on a lower class. There only possible escape is from those “donations” the map, books, and Shakespeare head. These items gave them a glimpse of a world far better than their own. Maybe gave them a little hope that they could escape their current state and do greater than whats surrounding them. However to me the author’s statements makes it seem that he believes exposing these lower class students to such outlets as Shakespeare, and books about ‘ships” sun” and “love” will turn them into criminals. Were some people think if you don’t expose them to wonderful stories etc they will turn to crime because that’s the only thing they were exposed to. In the end he displays some kind of hope that if political figures will recognize these problems and free these kids from dreaming and make it a reality. I like this poem I didn’t at first but as I read it more I understood where it was going. Every kid deserves a chance no matter where they come from. These kids are our future they are going to vote on important issues one day and take care of us. We have to take care of them now give them more opportunities give them more outlets or they will turn to crime.

  2. In Stephen Spender’s poem, An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum, the speaker’s comparison of the children to rootless weeds caused my mind to flashback to the first impression I had of my students when I stepped inside an elementary school classroom in a slum twenty-five years ago. When I saw my students for the first time, I kept picturing Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Miss Ophelia began to question Topsy about who made her, she said, “I spect I growed.” She had no conception even of what it meant to be human. In Topsy’s mind she just grew like a weed of the earth. She had no mother, no father, no God, no nothing. She even said she never was born. She just grew like a wild weed responding to a wide range of harsh stimuli coming from a harsh environment. Although Topsy was an African American slave girl, the characteristics of most children in the slums are that of rootless weeds regardless of ethnicity. Slavery is slavery whether it’s mentally, physically, financially, or spiritually, the look is the same. The children of the slums are like rootless weeds because they are the results of unplanned growth planted where they are not wanted nor appreciated. The governor, teacher, inspector, and visitors are like the wise men bringing gifts. They are able to lift the head of the tall girl, open wide the beady rat’s eyes of the paper seeming boy, break the generation curse of the boy with twisted bones, and give the dreamer in the back of the room a vision with a timeline. Poetry and literature are water for their parched imaginations. Shel Silverstein, a famous children’s poet, wrote a poem called “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” He invites the reader to go to the place where the sidewalk ends which is a metaphor of a place where things are better than they are right here. The imagination makes all things possible. Shakespeare is not wicked because for many students writers and poets are like an oasis in the burning sands

  3. In the poem “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” Stephen Spender provides sort of a depressing situation of the students in the classroom. I have been in a few classrooms myself that have given me a similar feeling to what is being described in this poem as far as the mood goes. The first student introduced in this poem is a tall girl with a weighed down head. The girl seems to be physically and emotionally tired, as though all the life has been drained from her body and mind. There is a possibility that this could be related to a condition caused outside of the classroom. The other students seem to be in a similar uncomfortable mood. The paper seeming boy with rat’s eyes is thin and weak. His eyes seem to be squinted or maybe he looks sleepy. It appears that the boy is sickly and may have a disease of some sort. The third kid, “the stunted, unlucky heir of twisted bones,” is the victim of some sort of a genetic disorder. Stephen Spender writes that the boy has inherited his “father’s gnarled disease”. When I first read this poem it doesn’t make you think of a pretty picture, it is bare truth to what is taking place in our world. To me school is a place that molds our youth who will one day be in positions to make important life decisions on our behalf. All children should be treated equally especially when it comes to education and health. The same opportunities should be provided across the board, no child is better than the next. It is not fair for some children to have to endure such hardships to gain an education which is crucial to social advancement.

  4. In this poem i think it is talking about a group of students who go to a rough school. The students act as if they do not want to be at the school. They may have grew up in a rough neighborhood. Every child deserves a good education no matter what background they come from. I know some students do not get the same education as other students because of the school. Some schools do not recieve good text books like other schools. This is not fair to students because they should get the same treatment. I believe that the type of education that you recieve as a child determines how much a student is prepared for college or “the real world”. This is a good poem because it expresses how some students may feel growing up and attending a school like the one in this poem.

  5. This poem really spoke to me; it is clearly about the blight of being lower class. Growing up in a small broken town allowed me to see the generations of families that have never left because they were unable. Like the poem says “the stunted, unlucky heir of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease” refers to the inability for those born into the slum, to ever be cured of this ‘disease’. Even though the children “live in a dream, of squirrel’s game, in the tree room, other than this” it is hardly plausible to escape the slum with the tools they were handed. It is almost a taunt that the items donated shows a place better than their own, that seems quite of out of reach. These hand-me-down learning materials will most likely never give the children the knowledge they need to succeed. They are just a ‘window’ to what could be. Because as we know in today’s society knowledge is everything to a good paying job and since money is king in our world it is hopeless to think otherwise. To aspire to anything great the barriers of underfunded underdeveloped schools, somebody must give these children a boost. Without the knowledge of decent materials to learn from the children will be stuck in a glass box of poverty with no windows or doors leading out into the “green fields and make their world
    run azure on gold sands”. This fantasy cannot become a reality without something more than what they have. It only takes one person such as the poems says, a “governor, teacher, inspector, visitor,” to help break the barriers into a new world. However, with no initiative from anyone the circle of poverty will continue and bright minds will be stuck to live as their ancestors had – like “rootless weeds”.

  6. Something that was discussed in class that was strange to me is, that these poor kids are referred to as “rootless weeds,” giving the illusion that they do not have parents, and that being poor is hereditary; it is passed down from generation to generation, along with looks and diseases. To me this doesn’t really reflect the idea of the “American Dream,” and going from rags to riches like so many Americans believe and do. It is one of the reasons that so many immigrants migrated to the United States during the late nineteenth century; they saw opportunity they were not offered anywhere else.
    It is also strange to me that the map is considered bad in this poem because, where I grew up a map means opportunity and adventure; something that these children will never have. All these poor children know of is being poor and living in slums, and it seems as though the message is why would we give them ideas that are unrealistic for them? Well, I disagree. I would have to say that I agree with the idea of going from “rags to riches,” and that anything is possible, especially with a good education. The map becomes their window, or way out of this terrible situation and they should take it. They should make the impossible, possible.

  7. This poem speaks to me of slag heap and open-handed map. I see that the derelict rose is in the classroom in America. If one runs naked into books it is obvious that the white and green leaves open to those who’s language is the sun. A gaunt boy that inherits the disease of the working class is in this catacomb. He is the one with the rat’s eyes. The one with twisted bones keeps in a seemingly forgotten fissure. I cannot relate to those in the classroom, nor do I give them sympathy. It is up from the ashes that a rose will grow. It is difficult and tiresome, but the reward is worth it. It is not some get rich quick scheme nor a sealed judgment that forecasts their impending doom. The world is not an oyster. It is not some sea creature that opens to reveal a pearl. It is more of a challenge than that. I remember the classrooms, where I sat some years ago, the smell of the chalk on the blackboard, the rush of the wind against the window. It all comes back if you give the memory a second. It comes like a fog at first, but once your mind wades through the mire you begin to see a glimmer of what life was. This is not very much unlike these students position. They have a fog in their midst. It is up to them to map their way through it. And yet they are not alone, they have the tools in which to traverse these tribulations as well as an instructor to guide them along their way down the murky mire. Examples will be set, and there will be a plethora of tests. Do you live in this endless night? When it is all said and done don’t we all still grasp onto this language of the sun? The real poverty is in not knowing the language.

  8. This poem describes the situation that many children experience even in this modern society where “no child is left behind”. While reading this poem I imagine sitting down looking at the teacher not being very interested in what she is teaching and looking at a classroom in very bad conditions. This children don’t know Shakespeare, maps, or the world outside that classroom. This poem makes me frustrated because I know that there are some districts because of lack of money/resources, good teachers, and motivation do not give children the education that they deserve. It is awful that even in our nation we have many children that are not getting the best education availabe. At the end of the poem Stephen says something that I agree with, he says that unless governors, teachers, inspectors, visitors, (and I am going to add parents to the list) step up to the challange, this kids will never be successful. We have to give every children the best education possible because they are our future.

  9. My thoughts on this poem are almost dim. This poem makes me sad thinking about what kind of education these children are receiving that their future still feels so bleak. There is always something to be said for the magic that is books and poems. To read and feel what others before us have written is a beautiful feeling. There is an understanding of the history of where we come from in the words that are written even in fictional works. As I think that there are people in high positions in this country that would want to stop us from reading the works of those who have come before us it saddens me. There is certainly a bleak future ahead of those who cannot appreciate the arts. The children in this poem are being droned to see the world as one person sees it never getting the insights of others and I think that this is a sad state of affairs. I believe that this poem speaks of the light at the end of the tunnel that is the art of reading and writing our feelings and thoughts as humans.

  10. In the poem, “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” Stephen Spender is describing lower class, poor children. After reading the first few lines, it started to make me very sad. In my opinion, the author is stating how these poor, underpriveledged children pretty much won’t go anywhere in life. They were born into what they were meant to be. I guess he is saying because the students are poor, they probably won’t ever make it beyond lower class as they get older. Every child deserves a chance no matter how much income their family has, or how they are being brought up. Every one is different and that’s what makes them so special. They just have to be given that chance.

  11. As a lover of poetry I truly believe that poetry can uplift and inspire. Aside from the regular curriculm, free thinking and analyzing are skills that students can take with them anywhere. For instance, in this particular poem, poetry is the children’s hopes and dreams which are the only things that will save them from the environment they are currently in. It is their way out.

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