A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Book 3, Chapters 19–20 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 19

Francie doesn't fit in at school. She is "too quiet" for the "rougher" kids, and shunned by those better behaved. She is a little girl too bookish and smart for her social class, but not well off enough to mix with those who were from better blocks. Worse still, she realizes she will never be a teacher's pet, even if she doesn't yet fully understand why that privilege is reserved for the shopkeepers' daughters, "with freshly curled hair, crisp clean pinafores, and new silk hairbows." (It doesn't help that Francie's presentation doesn't exactly attract friends. The reader shortly learns she stinks of garlic and kerosene oil. Worried about illness, Katie makes her children wear garlic cloves around their necks and rubs kerosene into Francie's scalp to prevent lice and nits from taking up residence.)

Nothing, however, compares with the disappointment Francie feels when her illusions about education are shattered by reality. It's not just the ratty buildings. She is used to those. It's the facts about education. Teachers and principals could be, and often are, ill-suited to their vocation. Considering that teaching children isn't socially valued, despite the law mandating it that provides a thin veneer of respectability, it's no wonder that it doesn't take much to be a teacher. Not only that, but teaching children is a woman's job, and since married women aren't allowed to teach, it seems clear that "most of the teachers were women made neurotic by starved love instincts." Those teachers, "barren women," take out their frustration on their charges, especially Francie and other poor children. The latter are forced to sit at the back of the classroom and, worse yet, are told not to use the bathroom until recess. Even then, not every child could use the facilities. So much for halcyon days.

Fortunately, Sissy comes to Francie's rescue—and in so doing, rescues herself. After having been banished from the Nolan home over the condom incident, she has a chance to redeem herself. Laid off from work, Sissy goes to meet Francie at school. Embarrassed that she wet herself, Francie eventually admits to her Aunt Sissy that she wasn't allowed to go to the washroom. The next morning, Aunt Sissy confronts Miss Briggs, Francie's teacher, enlisting a combination of lies and threats to ensure her niece can use the bathroom when she needs it. After hearing that Sissy has suffered another stillbirth, Katie allows her back into their lives.

Chapter 20

There is a lice epidemic at school, and those with it are teased. Then there's the mumps to be avoided. Katie's determination to keep her children disease-free leads even the teachers to ask her to stop using the kerosene, which she's been rubbing on the children to keep nits away. Katie ignores the note and, whether through Katie's tactics or through sheer luck, it is a fact that neither of her children fall ill or get lice during their school years.

Analysis

Aunt Sissy's essential goodness shows through once again, and this time without any bad consequences. The reader is reminded of how unfair it is that a woman with so much love to give cannot have a child of her own, which is reinforced by yet another stillborn baby. Katie, focused so intensely on her family's survival, doesn't realize the conditions that cause Francie to wet her pants. Aunt Sissy's kindness also contrasts sharply with the abusive culture at the school, which is protected by the fact that the children are unlikely to complain about it.

A crucial component of the American Dream is education—free education. A fundamental feature of democracy is that children learn how to be good citizens. They learn how to read and write, which are skills essential to participating in a democracy. These and other skills learned in school are also important to a child's economic future; the reader is told, for example, in Chapter 7, that Sissy's first husband, Jim, having finished grammar school, is considered educated. As such, he has had more options in life than someone without it. What Smith shows her reader, however, is that poverty and class complicate education, from policy to pupil.

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