“Compressed emotions,” that is the explanation a teacher once gave to the ongoing question, “What is poetry?” He said it was someone’s deepest emotions, as if you were reading them right out of that person’s mind, which in that case would not consist of any words at all. If someone tells you a story, it is usually like a shell.
Rarely are all of the deepest and most personal emotions revealed effectively. A poem of that story would be like the inside of the shell. It personifies situations, and symbolizes and compares emotions with other things in life. Louise Erdrich’s poem Indian Boarding School puts the emotions of a person or group of people in a setting around a railroad track. The feelings experienced are compared to things from the setting, which takes on human characteristics.Louise Erdrich was born part German, part American Indian. Since the title and other references in the poem refer to Indian people, it is most likely that this poem was very personal to her.
The boarding school may have been a real place she went to, or where mistreatment of her people was not uncommon, or it could simply be a tool she used to express racism towards them in general. With that fact, the reader must remember that although the words are from the runaways’ point of view, there are not necessarily any real runaways. From the point of view at which this is told, the runaways are eager to find their way home. They do not necessarily really try to runaway, it may just be in their fantasies, “Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.” (line 1). The first use of personification is in the line, “The rails, old lacerations that we love,”(line 4).
It is not yet quite clear why Erdrich would compare the train tracks with old lacerations until the lines, “shoot parallel across the face and break just under the Turtle Mountains.” (lines 5-6). Mountains are definite things that are physical in nature. Train tracks on a face are hard to imagine, so it leads us to believe it has some deeper meaning.
This reveals that the children want to run away from the boarding school for more serious matters than just good old home-sickness. The “old lacerations” may represent wounds on their own faces, internal or external. Visually, train tracks look like wounds that were stitched and scarred.
The Turtle Mountains must relate to this idea somehow since they are in the same sentence. The word “under” is used for describing the direction in which the lacerations run. Considering that they start from the face, the Turtle Mountains may represent breasts. The two are alike in the fact that they are both under the face. With that in mind, and the next line, “Riding scars you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross,” (lines 6-7). One could assume that “home” means the heart.
The phrase, “Home is where the heart is” attests to this well. If the turtle Mountains do represent breasts, it makes it even more convincing, since the heart is right near them. There should still be an explanation as to how the land relates to the Indian children. The “old lacerations” are oddly put into the line,”The rails, old lacerations that we love,”(line 4).
Old scars could also represent past memories. The old rails could be the path leading to their homeland. In that case, the children would be happy to ride on the rails.
Since lacerations are on the ground, and the ground could represent a face as well, the use of personification for the ground is very important. This is evident in the line, “We watch through cracks in boards as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts to be here, cold in regulation clothes,” (lines 9-11). They are imagining to be in boxcars, peaking at the outside as they grow farther away from the school.
The land rolling hurts them because the lacerations must follow that rolling pattern too. They may be “cold in regulation clothes” because being in the boxcars is only a fantasy; they are still restricted to the school. The clothes could simply be another representaton of the “cold” school, which probably requires a uniform or dress code.
In the second sense, giving the land human, Indian characteristics, if it were dressed in regulation clothes they would make it foreign and not true to what it really is. It just covers up it’s green grass. This becomes important in the line, “All runaways wear dresses, long green ones…”(line 17). These words may have been used to create imagery.
Long, green dresses could make the reader think of extended, rolling green plains of land; their land. This could mean that all runaways are hurt in someway, being the green ground that has lacerations on it. Also being the green land that is covered (suppressed).
The line continues with, “…the color you would think shame was.
” You would maybe think green was shameful because it shows that they are Indian. This is something one may expect them to hide, yet they are not ashamed of it. It also makes it more clear that the ground represents their people and their heritage. “We scrub the sidewalks down because it is shameful work”(lines 18-19). They may make them scrub the sidewalks just to throw in their faces that cement is now on top of the ground. If this is true, then the meaning of the sentence may have been a little more clear if the word “is” was emphasized in italics.
That would seem to enhance that since they were not yet ashamed of themselves, scrubbing, touching, and experiencing what is true in reality would degrade and put them to shame. “The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark less tolerant”(line 8). The word “strike”is used with a double meaning. Obviously as in to strike a match, but also as in to strike the “dark.
” The dark could represent Indian people. A lit match would lighten the tone of one’s skin and that makes them less tolerant. Besides literally lightening their skin, they are also taking away their culture and their dignity. This is also proven when the narrator says, “Our brushes cut.
..things us kids pressed hard on the dark face, before it hardened pale..”(lines 20-24) Their dark faces are hardened pale because it no longer matters that they even have that color in their faces. It only matters when they are with their own kind. This suggests that there was some kind of prejudice against these people.
It may particularly mean this school or just the Indian people as a whole.The reason the children only dream of leaving could be explained in the lines, “We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun to take us back”(lines 12-13). They know it is not even worth it to try running away because they would always get caught anyway. This could also mean for the Indian people, that there is no use in trying to gain back what was once theirs because no one had succeeded before them. The “sheriff” is much more powerful (much larger in number) than them as well.
“The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums like a wing of long insults.”(lines 14-15). Erlich could have been implying that the road the “sheriff” sits on represents the permanent damage that was done to the land. It doesn’t really move or change, it just hums, like a slow tune of torture.
The mistreatment of their “ancient” ancestors still sits there, going in the same direction as before, “The worn-down welts of ancient punishment lead back and forth.” From lines eighteen and on, the ground is again referred to,except this time in the form of sidewalks. Besides “scrubbing the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work,” (line 19) they may also be scrubbing to get rid of it.
The sidewalk may have once been the green ground. Thus, the sidewalk is them, “the dark faces hardened pale.” “Things us kids pressed into the dark faces hardened, pale, remembering delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.” The things they used to press into the sidewalk so innocently like names and leaves, were all but hardened and paled when it dried.
That was the time when they remembered “delicate” injuries. Injuries that a child gets while playing or falling, not from bigotry or violence. Now those things are only memories.
It is very likely that Louise Erdrich experienced some kind of racism or prejudice in her lifetime. Segregation laws were still in use while she was growing up in the fifties, and in the sixties, many of the same people still felt racist, with or without the laws. Boarding schools were not an exception to this fact either. School authorities probably did take advantage of the fact that boarding schools are away from home and not under the watchful eye of any parent. This poem demonstrates the truth of what it really felt and feels like to have lived through such bad treatment. It is disturbing to think that instead of just learning at school, Louise Erdrich, amongst other children, may have learned what it felt like to be hated. At such early ages, they taught these children that the way they were treated was how the world was supposed to be.
It displays the painful scars embedded so deeply into a child, from a time that should have been the most nurturing part of his/her life.