Analysis of Carol Ann Duffy's In Mrs Tilscher's Class

In Mrs Tilscher’s Class

Introduction

The end of our primary school education often coincides with the shock and upheaval of puberty. Duffy’s “In Mrs Tilscher’s Class” recalls her wonderful childhood experiences but also the inevitable and dangerous transition to adolescence.

Mrs Tilscher’s Classroom

The teacher provides her pupils with a welcoming and rewarding environment. This is most obvious in the simple declarative “Mrs Tilscher loved you” and when she “left a good gold star by your name”. The alliteration of the hard /g/ draws our attention to the simple joy of receiving a positive affirmation of our identity. The speaker clearly feels appreciated.

The simile comparing the “classroom” to a “sweetshop” suggests that the speaker has a great love of school and its wonderful “sugar paper” and “coloured shapes”. A “sweetshop” is one of the most obvious signifiers of childhood excitement because it is a place where we get delicious treats and we are always eager to go. The verb “glowed” and the adjective “enthralling” used to describe the “books” reinforces this enchantment.

School is often unfairly presented as drab. However, the opening two lines of the poem suggest Mrs Tilscher’s class is mesmerising:

You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.

The verb “travel” immediately introduces the idea of an exciting trip. This is confirmed by their journey along the Blue Nile, which is a river in North Africa and an incredibly exotic location thousands of miles away from the speaker’s ordinary school life.

Using enjambment, the second line relocates the reader back into the classroom and we realise the speaker was simply “tracing the route”. The alliteration of the “tr” sound links these two contrasting verbs. However, the juxtaposition of the exotic “travel” and the classroom activity of “tracing” emphasises how the classroom is transformative, moving the speaker from her everyday reality to the richer world her imagination.

Mrs Tilscher’s skill as a teacher is indicated by the verb ‘chanted’ when she leads the class with her low, melodic voice that excites her pupils. The word “scenery” also adds to this sense of drama.

The fourth line is almost direct speech. The captivating rhythm of Mrs Tilscher’s voice is created by the stress falling on many of the syllables and the caesura separating each location. When we read the list and its wonderfully varied sounds, we are transported to her classroom and mesmerised just like the speaker.

School

Everything about the speaker’s experience in school seems wonderful. The metaphoric “skittle”, used to describe the shape of the iconic bottle, suggests even drinking milk was a fun game.

The personification of “the laugh of the bell”, which was rung to announce the end of class, reinforces this pleasure and the “running child” is clearly very energetic and excited.

There is also a quiet beauty in the sibilant “scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved”. The alliteration of /s/ and how it falls on the stressed syllables mimic the rhythm of the pencil being sharpened, suggesting the speaker relishes its movement and sound while she gets ready to learn the next topic.

Time

The geography lesson described in the first stanza finishes for a milk break and the Pyramids drawn on the blackboard are rubbed out. These images convey the passing of time and that even empires become ancient. It is inevitable that the speaker’s time with Mrs Tilscher will end and she will have to “travel” her own way through the world without the teacher’s guidance.

The third stanza moves the poem to “over the Easter term” and the final stanza begins with “that feverish July”.

The first two stanzas have eight lines but the final two are reduced to seven. This reflects how the speaker is “impatient to be grown” and, without us realising it, how time seems to quicken during these important moments.

Danger

In the middle of the second stanza, Duffy includes a reference that seems to be at odds with the other images of a fantastic school:

Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.

Known as the ‘Moors Murderers’, Brady and Hindley were notorious serial killers who hunted children. Included at the end of the line and completing a triplet, it becomes a sudden and disturbing twist. The simile is very appropriate because it connects them to the way a mistake is not totally erased from a blackboard. Mrs Tilscher tries to protect her pupils from these horrors, but reality leaves a “smudge” that cannot be ignored.

However, the two adjectives “faint” and “uneasy” and the nervous pause indicated by the comma suggest that the speaker is becoming aware of the dangerous world outside the classroom.

Tadpoles

As the academic year progress, so does the speaker’s understanding of the world.

The central image at the start of the third stanza is the metamorphosis of the tadpoles into frogs. The speaker does not have the language yet to properly define this change and uses images of writing to explain what happens instead.

The metaphoric “inky” brilliantly conveys the colour and watery quality of the tadpoles. It is as if the in has still to take shape on the page. “Commas” extends the metaphor, comparing the shape of the “tadpoles” to a punctuation mark. It is just a pause before the next change – “exclamation marks”. The punctuation mark is now bigger, stronger and, perhaps, more vulgar.

The full stop before the end of the second line separates the images of the tadpoles from the “three frogs”. This caesura suggests the speaker cannot fully see the biological connection between the two and mistakenly believes they are different creatures.

With the little enjambment trick forcing the reader’s eyes to ‘hop’ to the next line, Duffy illustrates the movement of the frogs which were “freed by a dunce”. The tone of this phrase is full of irritation and disappointment.

The speaker’s innocence is ruined by “a rough boy” and she is “appalled” to learn the truth about biology. The use of parenthesis around “appalled” makes the moment quite comical and the adjective “rough” describing the “boy” also suggests the innocence of the speaker.

The change in the tadpoles foreshadows her increasing maturity in the final stanza.

The Speaker’s Metamorphosis

The mood changes in the final stanza. At the start of the poem, the speaker was enchanted by school, but the “laugh of a bell” is now a “tangible alarm” and, by the end, she is eager to grow up.

The feeling is dangerous and exciting:

“That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.”

Pathetic fallacy assigns human emotions to the natural world and it is the main language device Duffy employs to describe the speaker’s pubescence. It is as if her whole world is changing.

Curiosity

The speaker is now incredibly curious about the adult world.

In the previous stanza, she “kicked” the “rough boy” because she was disgusted by the thought of procreation. Still unsure, she “asked” Mrs Tilscher “how you were born”, but the teacher simply “smiled” and “turned away”. She turns her back on the speaker because she is no longer able to protect the children from the adult world.

Her refusal to answer the speaker is a stark contrast from the start of the poem. She is no longer chanting – she is silent.

Context

Leaving primary school for the last time is an escape we are eager to make but one which takes us from safety into the dangerous unknown. Throughout the poem, Duffy refers to “you”. By writing in the second person, the poet invites the reader to share her experience, but she is also speaking to her younger self and coming to terms with her old identity.

Mrs Tilscher was a real person who taught Duffy in her final year at St Austin’s Catholic Primary School in Stafford in England. She left in 1967 and would have been eleven years old.

The retrospective adult voice can be heard in the adjective “that” which opens the final stanza. Also, young children were not necessarily aware of the media frenzy surrounding the infamous Brady and Hindley. This allusion was inserted to give the poem a time frame.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What effect does Duffy hope to achieve by opening the poem with the second person pronoun “you”?
  2. The poem opens with the image of the Blue Nile in the first line. If you only read this particular line, where would the reader think the poem was located?
  3. Where do the next two lines shift the action?
  4. Why has the poet deliberately opened the poem in this way?
  5. Is the “chanting” soothing or exciting?
  6. How does the use of caesura in line four echo Mrs Tilscher’s “chanting”?
  7. Why is the metaphoric “skittle” effective in describing the milk bottle?
  8. How does the “Pyramids rubbed into dust” create a sense of movement and time?
  9. The poet uses personification in the last line of the first stanza. Identify the image and suggest what it tells the reader about the school.
  10. Look at line nine. Does the speaker enjoy school?
  11. What adjective is used to describe the books in the second stanza?
  12. What images in the second stanza are universal experiences of primary school?
  13. What does the simile “the classroom glowed like a sweet shop” suggest about Mrs Tilscher’s class? Think about how you felt about a sweet shop when you were in Primary school.
  14. Does the alliteration of “g” emphasise the pleasure of receiving a “good gold star”?
  15. Suggest reasons why the poet included the simile “Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint uneasy smudge of a mistake”. If you are unsure about whom these two villains are, search online but their story is shocking.
  16. In line fifteen, how does the alliteration of /s/ mimic the rhythm of sharpening a pencil?
  17. Find words or phrases in the second stanza that demonstrate Mrs Tilscher’s class being a place of warmth and security.
  18. Explain the metaphor comparing the growth of a tadpole from “commas into exclamation marks”. Is it an effective comparison?
  19. Does the speaker make the connection between the tadpoles and “three frogs”?
  20. How do the verbs “jumping and croaking” link the “kids” with the metamorphosis of the tadpole and frog?
  21. How important is biology in the third stanza?
  22. How does Duffy create pathos for the speaker at the end of the third stanza?
  23. Suggest reasons why Duffy described July with the adjective “feverish”.
  24. How does the poet feel in the second and third lines of the final stanza? How is this different from the first two verses?
  25. How does the language and tone change at the start of the final stanza?
  26. Electricity has both destructive and empowering. Why is it an appropriate way to describe the air?
  27. How do the numerous adjectives used in lines twenty-four to twenty-six change the rhythm and mood of the poem? How is that pace reinforced by the commas?
  28. Suggest why Mrs Tilscher “turned away” from the pupils she “loved”.
  29. Gates are often used as a symbol of transition or entry into a new life. Is the image used appropriately at the end of the poem?
  30. Pathetic fallacy is when writers attribute human emotions to the natural world. In what way does the thunderstorm represent the speaker’s life?
  31. Find an image in the third stanza that conveys a sense of change or growing maturity.
  32. How many lines are in each stanza? Can you think of any reasons why the poet has subtlety changed the form of the poem?

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