The speaker makes numerous allusions throughout the poem to things she learned in school. These allusions, presented as snippets of information without further context, capture the way bits of information from childhood often stay lodged in people's minds for years.
In the first stanza, for example, the speaker breathes on the photograph in order to "make a ghost" of her old history teacher, Miss Ross. As she does so, she says, "South Sea Bubble Defenestration of Prague." This mashes together two historical allusions:
- The South Sea Bubble was a financial crash in the early 18th century.
- The Defenestration of Prague refers to a 1618 event when Protestants tossed three Catholic officials out a window, leading to the bloody Thirty Years' War.
The speaker presumably learned about these events in Miss Ross's history class; seeing her teacher in the photograph makes them pop into her mind in the present.
In the next stanza, the speaker says that she learned "The RIver's Tale by Rudyard Kipling by heart" in Miss Pirie's class. This refers to a poem by the British writer Rudyard Kipling, which was originally commissioned as a preface to a history textbook. The fact that the speaker learned the entire poem conveys just how much Miss Pirie inspired her. The other allusions in the poem are just fragments of information, but this poem is something lodged in the speaker's "heart."
In the third stanza, the speaker mentions a number of teachers whom she disliked. She presents each name alongside a random scrap of educational content that implies which subject each teacher taught:
But not Miss Sheridan. Comment vous appelez.
But not Miss Appleby. Equal to the square
of the other two sides. Never Miss Webb.
Dar es Salaam. Kilimanjaro.
"Comment vous appelez" means "What is your name in French," implying that Miss Sheridan was the speaker's French teacher. The next allusion is to part of the Pythagorean theorem, which the speaker presumably learned about in Miss Appleby's math class. The final allusions are to two locations in Tanzania, which the speaker learned about in Miss Webb's geography class.
These scraps of information don't have any additional context. They've become near-meaningless fragments of language that gesture towards the boredom of learning by rote and repetition.