This piece is written in clear and relatable language that is easy to read. The four-line stanzas are of a similar length, meaning that they progress through the poem quickly and are enjoyable. Many readers are likely to find themselves shocked by the subject of this poem but, due to the manner in which it’s written, it should come across as more amusing, hyperbolic, and outrageously entertaining than offensive.
Explore The Lesson
‘The Lesson’ by Roger McGough is an amusing poem that depicts a fictional teacher who loses his temper for the last time with his students.
In the first lines of the poem, the teacher walks into the classroom to a familiar sight – his students not listening to him and creating a great deal of noise. He tells them that it’s time to learn a lesson. Over the following stanzas, he brings out multiple weapons, killing everyone in his classroom. At one point, the “Head” looks into the classroom to see what’s going on and nods understandably. The poem ends with the teacher telling his now quiet classroom that this is the “lesson” that they needed to learn.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
Chaos ruled OK in the classroom
as bravely the teacher walked in
the nooligans ignored him
his voice was lost in the din
‘The theme for today is violence
and homework will be set
I’m going to teach you a lesson
one that you’ll never forget’
In the poem’s first stanza, the poet describes the setting and the main characters. They’re going to be telling a short and humorous story about a teacher who walked into a classroom, encountered the “violence” of the day, and sought to teach his students a lesson.
The poet uses personification in the first line as they describe the chaos of an unruly classroom. This is something that any teacher, or caretaker of young kids, is going to relate to. The sound of the classroom and their raging and screaming voices is something that the teacher is likely very familiar with. He speaks to the classroom, although no one can hear him or is listening to his words. He tells the students that he’s going to “teach” them a lesson that they were “never forget.”
Stanzas Three and Four
He picked on a boy who was shouting
‘fingers, feet or toes’
The following lines depict the teacher violently attacking his students one at a time. He has a sword and a garrotte in these first stanzas of description. The poet makes use of numerous literary devices within these lines, including alliteration. “Hand he hacked” is a great example. Additionally, in the third stanza, he uses the word “garrotted” and “grotty.” The first to describe a kind of weapon used to strangle someone with, the second to describe the texture of a girl’s hair.
Despite the violence of these lines, there is implied humor in them as well. The line “’First come, first severed’ he declared / ‘fingers, feet or toes’” is outrageous, but it is also supposed to be funny.
Stanzas Five and Six
He threw the sword at a latecomer
when the plug’s pulled out
In the fifth stanza, the teacher uses the sword again and brings out a shotgun. The poem moves quickly through these lines due to the poet’s use of enjambment. He cuts off each line before transitioning into the next, ensuring that readers are inspired to continue their progress through the quatrains.
The first blast of the shotgun, the speaker describes, cleared the back row of students where the most delinquent ones hung out. The poet uses a simile at the end of the six stanzas, comparing the way that the students fell to the collapse of “rubber dinghies” when the plug is pulled out.
Imagine something that’s been inflated, like a blowup toy used in a pool, and how it would collapse when the air is let out. This is the way that the raging teacher viewed his students as he shot them.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
‘Please may I leave the room sir? ‘
then tossed in a grenade
In the eighth stanza, a “trembling vandal” or one of his students speaks to him. He asked the teacher if he made “leave the room.” The teacher replies calmly, “of course you may.” This is just before he shoots the child in his head with the shotgun. The gunshot noise inspired the “head” or administrative leader of the school to inquire what was going on. They “nodded understandingly” and tossed in a grenade. It’s clear that there’s no one who’s going to stop this satirical massacre of students. All the teachers and adults know how frustrating a classroom full of “vandals” can be.
In the eighth stanza, a “trembling vandal” or one of his students speaks to him. He asked the teacher if he may “leave the room.” The teacher replies calmly, “Of course, you may.” This is just before he shoots the child in his head with the shotgun. The noise of the gunshot inspired the “Head” or administrative leader of the school to inquire as to what was going on. They “nodded understandingly” and tossed in a grenade. It’s clear that there’s no one is going to stop this satirical massacre of students. All the teachers and adults know how frustrating a classroom full of “vandals” can be.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
And when the ammo was well spent
with blood on every chair
Silence shuffled forward
with its hands up in the air
The teacher surveyed the carnage
the dying and the dead
He waggled a finger severely
‘Now let that be a lesson’ he said.
In the tenth stanza, the teacher spent all his ammo and killed all of his students. There is another wonderful example of personification in lines three and four as the poet describes silence shuffling forward with it “hands up in the air.” This is an image of surrender. But, it is also representative of how there is no life left in the room beside the teachers.
The final lines include the teacher’s message, “Now let that be a lesson.” This is a common phrase that most young people will have at one time or another in their lives after they have trespassed in some important way. The teacher has taught his students a lesson about misbehaving. He showed them that actions do, in fact, have consequences.
Structure and Form
‘The Lesson’ by Roger McGough is an eleven-stanza poem divided into four sets, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme ABCB and changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are similar lengths, between six and ten syllables each.
The poet makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Lesson.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that appeal to the readers senses. These lines should allow the reader to easily visualize the subject matter the poet is describing. For example: “then garrotted the girl behind him / (the one with grotty hair).”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, the use of “Chaos” and “classroom” in the first line of stanza one and “hand he hacked” in line one of the fourth stanza.
- Enjambment: it occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. It’s particularly effective in this poem. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second stanza.
The tone is humorous and exaggerated. The speaker describes imagined events based on the built-up rage a teacher might experience as they try to wrangle their unruly students. Despite the devastation that the poem depicts, readers should walk away from this piece feeling amused by the poet’s use of language and amazed by the images they encountered.
The poet likely wrote this poem in order to express the frustration of teachers around the world and throughout time. No matter where one lives or the type of students they deal with, all teachers have likely felt this incredible frustration towards their students. Although no one should go to the lengths that this teacher did to teach his “lesson,” the poem does do a great job of showing how infuriating not being listened to is.
The speaker is a distant narrator who describes a scene without passing judgment on anyone within it. They are not a part of the massacre in the classroom. Instead, they are simply relating a story.
The poem attempts to convey how infuriating and frustrating a teacher’s job can be. Although most teachers are patient and kind every day of their working lives, it’s nearly impossible to perfectly maintain that exterior when one student is disobedient and loud.
Reader so enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Roger McGough poems. For example:
- ‘First Day at School’ – is an interesting poem about a child’s experience on their first day. They are lost, confused, and feeling left out throughout the day.
- ‘The Trouble with Snowmen’ – a clever and surprisingly complex poem that uses the symbol of a snowman made of cement to speak about human existence, memory, and time.