Indian Boarding School


"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