When the poem begins, the speaker is looking at a class photograph from her school days. This is more specifically a panoramic photograph:
- Imagine a group of school children and their teachers posing in rows. Everyone stays still as the camera pans across the scene in order to fit everyone in the shot.
- The speaker "runs round the back" of the group so that she reaches the other side before the camera does—and thus appears in the photo twice.
The speaker is clearly excited to be in this picture. Readers might already get a sense of her rebellious personality as well, given that she refuses to stand still as the picture gets taken.
Notice that the poem is written in the present tense despite the fact that the speaker is describing scenes from many years ago. Indeed, these lines essentially set the poem in the present and the past at the same time: the speaker bounces back and forth between what it's like to be the child in the photograph and what it's like to look at the photograph as an adult. This makes the poem feel immediate and visceral, and it also illustrates the lasting hold these school experiences have on the speaker's life.
The speaker's teachers are in the front row of the group, and they stare out at the speaker from the photograph. Their bodies in the picture are "No bigger than your thumbs," the speaker says, conveying the literal size of the teachers in the photograph and also suggesting how these women have been figuratively diminished in the speaker's mind over the years. That is, these women who were once towering figures of authority in the speaker's life can now be blotted out by her thumb.
The speaker calls her teachers "those virtuous women," a line that readers might guess is ironic given that these women also "size you up." That is, they come across not at virtuous but as snobbish and judgemental. On some level, it seems, the speaker feels like these teachers are still judging her—just like they did then.
These opening lines give readers a sense of the poem's interesting form. The poem is written in free verse, making it sound authentic and conversational. Yet though the speaker is talking about herself, she doesn't use any first-person pronouns. Instead, she opts for the more unusual second-person: "You."
This divides the speaker into two distinct people: the woman she is now and the person she was then. It also places the reader into the speaker's shoes and creates a sense of camaraderie. By making the reader feel as though these memories belong to them, too, the speaker is more likely to garner readers' sympathy.