First Day at School By Roger McGough

Introduction: The poem has been written by Roger McGough. The poem uses language and tone in powerful and playful way to describe a child’s first experiences at school. The poem reveals the anxieties, ignorance, and lack of understanding of a child on his first day at School. The poem not only explores the innocence of a child but also his curiosity.

Summary of The Poem

The poem is about the feelings of a child during his or her first day at school. Throughout the poem, we see the anxiety, curiosity, misunderstandings, and perhaps the ignorance of a child.

The child observes the other children as they play; some are enthusiastic and some are not playing at all. The child notices that rails surround the school perhaps to lock out the monsters which must be quite frightening for the child. The child is convinced that lessons are some sort of slick (skilful but insincere) creatures. The child feels alone and longs for his mother.

The child is hopeful in the end that if he forgets his name, the teacher can read it out for him from the name tag.

Analysis of The Poem

In the poem ‘First Day at School’ by Roger McGough – a little child is finding it hard to fit into the school community and often mishears words. There are three traditional stanzas, each starting with irregular line breaks, following no rhymes or regular rhythm.

The poem is set in first person, consequently we do not know whether the persona is a female or male. This allows the reader to feel more connected to the persona, experiencing the pain he feels. McGough often incorporates his own world into the poem, showing exaggeration on clichéd sayings, for example, ‘millionbillionwillion’, emphasising the distance the child is from home and ‘yellowwellies’ paints an image for the reader. ‘(To go where?)’ is internal dialogue the poet uses to show the kid’s uncertainty and discomfort within the school community.

Throughout the poem McGough uses a creative imagination, ‘wolves and monsters’, so the reader wider idea of the way little kids think. Rhetorical questions are used in the first and second stanza, which emphasises he is observant to the surroundings, ‘why are they all so big, other children?’

A strong visual image is created in the reader’s vision, as the poet uses a variety of descriptive words to describe the school community, ‘sounds small and slimy’. Stanza two has a pun, ‘They keep them in the glassrooms.’ Instead of using classroom the poet uses at visual imagery word which allows the reader to create a picture.

This is effective in showing that the little child misunderstands words, thus the sentence creates a different meaning. In this poem we see a little child McGough overcome his fear of the school community in order to fit into the world.

Explanation of ‘First Day at School’ by Roger McGough

The Poem “First Day at School” tries to reveal the state of mind of a child at the initial stage of joining the school. The experience in itself is sometimes hilarious and sometimes bewildering.

The poet adopts an identity of a child on the first day of school and depicts the mood of the child throughout the poem. The poem does not consist of advanced poetic techniques, but rather it is written in a simple style to show the simplicity of the way children view the outer world compared to adults.There is no rhyme in the poem, it is written in the style of free verse. To enhance the plausibility, the poet intentionally misspells some words in the poem as a pre-school child would do. The poem consists of 3 stanzas and 27 lines in total. The only figure of speech used in the poem is hyperbole.

(1) “A millionbillionwillion miles from home”

In the first line (1), we see the exaggeration for the distance between the child’s home and the school, which refers to the extent the child feels far from home on the first day of the school. It is a new place for the child, and perhaps it is the first time s/he feels so far from home without the parents. This leads the child to express the distance with the wordplay ‘millionbillionwillion’ as in the line. The only figure of speech, which is hyperbole, we encounter in this poem is in the line (1).

(2) “Waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?)”

The following line (2) refers to the way that the child knows something, perhaps s/he has been told by the mother, that they need to wait for the bell to go somewhere, whether it is home or for a break. But the child could not really understand what the bell signifies exactly that is why s/he is confused as “To go where?”.

(3) “Why are they all so big, other children?
So noisy? So much at home they
Must have been born in uniform.”

The child suddenly realizes that other children look bigger than him/her. S/he realizes that all of them are so noisy and they act so relaxed as if they were at home, in contrast with himself/herself. This deepens the alienated feelings of the child as s/he starts realizing the differences between the others and him/her. Then the child thinks that they all look fit in the uniforms they wear and they look so comfortable, so it is like they have always been wearing those uniforms. Again, the child compares himself/herself to the others and feels lonely again.

(4) “Lived all their lives in playgrounds
Spent the years inventing games
That don’t let me in. Games
That are rough, that swallow you up”

In the lines (4), the child keeps observing the other big children in the school yard and examines the games they play. The child probably watch the others from a corner of the yard silently, then realizes the different games that the other children play. The games that s/he has not known before, therefore s/he thinks that they have spent their lives in playgrounds inventing new games. However, s/he also hypothesizes that these games are designed for big children, therefore the other children would not let the child join them since the games are dangerous for young child. We can understand this worry from the last line in (4), from the phrase ‘games that swallow you up’ which refers to the way that the child views those games kind of dangerous.

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The poet is aware of the fact that a young child would view the older children as a potential threat, and this fact is represented in the lines in (4).

(5) “And the railings.
All around the railings.”

After feeling alienated and mentally rejected by the other children, the child starts observing the space surrounding him/her and realizes the railings surrounding the school yard.

(6) “Are they to keep out wolves and monsters?
Things that carry off and eat children?
Things you don’t take sweets from?”

In the lines (6), the child starts reasoning the existing of the railings around the schoolyard. Based on the imaginary world of the child, s/he firstly thinks that these railing must be there for the threats from the outer world. Probably based on the stories s/he knows, such as Little Red Riding Hood, the child says ‘wolves’ rather than any other animal. We can support this claim by the following line ‘carry off and eat children’, referring to the elements of the story Little Red Riding Hood. The other word, ‘monsters’ and the other following line ‘things you don’t take sweets from’ can be associated with the Halloween, again based on the personal experiences of the child. In link with these reasons, the child prefers to express his/her hypothesis about the existing of the railings like this at first.

(7) “Perhaps they’re to stop us getting out
Running away from the lessins.”

However, then the child starts being more rational and view the real reason why the railings are there in the lines (7). Maybe the child saw a student trying to escape from the school garden, maybe remembered something, or maybe associated with these railings with the railings of a jail and deduced that these are also to keep people inside of something. The child also misspells the word lessons as ‘lessins’, as the child does not know how to write, and just heard the word lesson from the others. The poet again tries to be like a real child with these wordplays, as it is also the style of the poet as mentioned before.

(8) “What does a lessin look like? Lessin.
Sounds small and slimy.
They keep them in the glassrooms.
Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.”

Then the child starts to question the concept of ‘lesson’, with the misspelled version ‘lessin’ as in (8). We see the imagination of the child while ‘lessin’ is depicted. We also see another misconception of the word classroom as ‘glassroom’. Maybe the reason why the child imagines a ‘lessin’ to be small and slimy is because the worms s/he saw before, worms which were kept in glassrooms at a botanic park or something.

(9) “I wish I could remember my name
Mummy said it would come in useful.
Like wellies. When there’s puddles.
Yellowwellies. I wish she was here.”

Along with the beginning of the third stanza in (9), we witness the complex nature of a child’s mind, jumping between thoughts. The child suddenly turns to another topic. The child probably cannot remember his/her surname, and s/he is aware of the fact that it will be needed as the mummy said. Then the child associates the benefits of remembering surnames with the benefits of wellies when it is raining. Probably the child has been told similar things before, therefore s/he remembers these things. Then s/he wishes his/her mummy to be there so she can help him/her.

(10) “I think my name is sewn on somewhere
Perhaps the teacher will read it for me.
Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.”

The last lines of the poem, as in (10), refer to the things that the child is probably told before. The child’s mom probably told him/her that the teacher would read the names. The poem finishes with a cute misunderstanding, ‘teacher, the one who makes the tea’. Since the child’s native language is English, s/he knows that the -er suffix puts the word in doer position, as in speak-speaker. The child’s logic lets it to be this way in the word teacher as the tea maker.

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According to Piaget’s cognitive development stages, this kind of logic in children is seen in the pre-operational stage (2-7 years old) and it is called ‘transductive reasoning’. In this period, children think that if something is like this in one case, then it has to be like that in all the cases.

Therefore, since the child in the poem is in the pre-operational stage, thinks that if the -er suffix makes the meaning like that in other cases, then it has to do the same in the word teacher.The poem successfully reflects the mind of a school child on the first day of the school, including anxiety, misconceptions, misunderstandings, fear, and confusion.

Throughout the poem, we witness the stream of consciousness of the child as the topics jumped from one to another. The poet tries to keep readers on the track of a child’s mind from the beginning to the end of the poem.

Questions and Answers

Q1. Who do you think is the speaker of the poem?

Ans. The speaker of the poem is a child. The poet adopts an identity of a child on the first day of school and depicts the mood of the child throughout the poem.

Q2. What does the speaker feel about other boys in the school?

Ans. The speaker feels that the other boys are big, noisy, born in uniform, lived their lives in playgrounds and spent years in inventing the games.

Q3. Who, according to the speaker, are the ‘things you don’t take sweets from’?

Ans. According to the speaker, wolves and monsters are the things from which we don’t take sweets.

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(According to the speaker, we don’t take sweets from wolves and monsters)

Q4. What ‘glass rooms’ does the speaker talk about? What does he imagine people do there?

Ans. Glass rooms are the classrooms made of glass. People take lessons there.

Q5. What would the teacher read for the boy? Why do you think the speaker’s name has been sewn on to him?

Ans. The teacher would read the name of the boy. The speaker’s name has been sewn on to him because he himself thinks about it.

Q6. ‘Sewn’ is the past participle form of ‘sew’ (=to stitch). It is an irregular verb. Find out the past participle form of the following verbs:

Go, keep, eat, make, carry, come, think, run, write, feel


Verb = Past Participle

Go = gone

Keep = kept

Eat = eaten

Make = made

Carry = carried

Come = come

Think = thought

Run = run

Write = written

Feel = Felt

Q7. Did you like the above poem? Why? Talk to a partner about it. Ask him/her about his/her views about the poem.

Ans. Yes, I like the poem very much, because it is about the ‘first day at school’. Every child feels the same on the first day at school.

Q8. Write a paragraph of 100 words on, ‘Your School’. You may write:

· About the building.

· How far it is from your home?

· What facilities you have and you don’t have?

· What is the school timing?

· How many friends you have?

· Are there enough plants and trees in and around your school?

· What do you do to keep your school and classroom clean?

· School library.

· Any other.

Note: To read the Paragraph on My School click HERE.

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