Poetry Review, Louise Gluck, The School Children

16 Jan

Gluck’s “The School Children” holds up the uncomfortable situation of kids in school, a sort of side effect of education.

“The children go forward with their little satchels.”    Even the opening of this poem sets us in unfamiliar territory.  The thing that gets me is how anonymous “the children” seem, and how vague going forward is.  Normally we are used to people being described this way, but with children, the habit tends to be the opposite.  However, to a teacher, that’s how things might look, particularly in a crowded, poorer school where individuality tends to fade.

“And all morning the mothers have labored/to gather the late apples, red and gold,/like words of another language.”  When I first read this I wondered how much work a child brings to school was really done by their mothers?  I’m thinking projects and costumes and even sometimes homework I’m sure.  I mean if I’m a teacher and I assign a kid a job to make an authentic Iroquois scene, how much is just that kid’s doing?  What is the child learning from this?  And what of those children who don’t have parents/family members available to help them with such things?  They don’t do as well in school, that’s what.  I find it strange that educational success in the early years so heavily depends on family involvement.

However, within the confines of this poem, why are the women gathering the apples?  Here it’s presented as a sort of offering to the teacher, a very desperate one at that (we’ll get to that later.)  The interesting part is how these apples are like words from another language.  How are the apples words from a foreign land?  Well, there’s a sense that the world of the mothers and the world of school are so very different that these things don’t have meaning there.

I’ve tried to find an answer online as to why this “apple for the teacher” tradition exists and there’s two reasons that I can see.  First, back in the old days before public education really got going many teachers were paid by farmers giving them small amounts of their harvest, so an apple would be a good example of that.  Also, and Gluck really taps into this part, apples (and fruit in general) are traditional fertility offerings.  With school children the symbol carries forward because we have a fruit with seeds in it, that with the proper nurturing will become a strong tree.  However the schools (at least in this poem) don’t really care about nurturing, so there’s another reason they are words of another language to them.

“And on the other shore/are those who wait behind great desks/to receive these offerings.”  We’re looking through the eyes of the mothers, and maybe the children, to whom school is a world away.  To the poor, particularly, school exists on an entirely different plane, where the rules and conduct do not resemble the places they were in just that morning.  Also, the apples are expected–they will not do anything for these mothers’ children, because they are compulsory.  They only (might) keep the children from being punished.

“How orderly they are–the nails/on which the children hang/their overcoats of blue or yellow wool.”  Here’s where the school’s concern is, not nurture, but order–two very different goals.  There’s a world of difference between a seed and a nail, and in viewing children as nails to be pushed into neat little rows isn’t what the mothers would want at all.  There’s an interesting friction between the world of order and the world of growth.  Thinking about it, I suppose order is a big plus when dealing with groups, but order for a group does not mean that individuals grow, in fact order is best accomplished if people do not change.

“And the teachers will instruct them in silence” meaning the teachers will teach the children how to be quiet and orderly.  Also there’s a double meaning here, that the teachers will really be teaching them nothing.  Yes, being orderly in a group probably would help a little in life (because that’s what a job expects for one thing) but in being silent, there’s very little good that can come out of that in the long run.  Sooner or later a person must speak for themselves, after all, if they’re to get anywhere.  Isn’t there a little bit of association with the mothers sacrificing their children here, with the nails and those who wait to receive offerings?

“And the mothers scour the orchards for a way out,/drawing to themselves the gray limbs of the fruit trees,/bearing so little ammunition.”  There’s a desperation here, getting the last of these apples–trying to mark their children as different, to make them not one of a crowd, not one destined to remain silent.

There’s a wonderful balance to this poem too, how it begins and ends with the mothers, just as the children’s days would.  How the mothers want to control the days but are ultimately powerless, and how we travel through the day like the children.   And each day the mothers send their children out into the world, a world that doesn’t really care about them, trying to get the world to care about them, and ultimately failing.

It’s a stark comment on our society, and maybe every society–how individualism gets squashed whenever groups happen.  It happens to children and adults, and interestingly I find that America’s corporate culture fosters the exact same society that horrified Americans about Russia during the cold war.    I half wonder if we were really afraid of ourselves in the end.

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