Study Guide


by Charles Baxter

Gryphon Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

To the narrator, Tommy, a normal fourth-grade boy, and other pupils at Garfield-Murray School in rural Five Oaks, Michigan, each day is much like another. As their teachers lecture to them about predictable subjects in predictable ways, they memorize facts and repeat them back. Occasionally, the routine is disrupted by a substitute teacher, but with only four substitutes in all of Five Oaks, the students know exactly what to expect from each of them. Oblivious to the dullness of their routine, the students do not know that there are other possibilities, other ways to learn, and other ways to look or think, so they do not feel a lack. Into their mundane world Miss Ferenczi, a new substitute teacher, suddenly arrives.

From the first moment that Miss Ferenczi appears, it is clear that she is different; one student even jokes that she may be from Mars. She carries a purple purse and a checkered lunchbox, her glasses are tinted, and her hair is done up in a strange way. Before class begins, she spends time drawing a tree on the chalkboard because “this room needs a tree.” She then introduces herself by telling a long and dramatic story about her grandfather, a Hungarian prince, and her mother, a world-famous pianist. The students are captivated but cautious.

On her first day, Miss Ferenczi covers some of the regularly assigned material; however, during the arithmetic lesson, she accepts a student’s answer that six times eleven equals sixty-eight. When several students protest, she encourages them to let go of their orthodoxy. She is a substitute teacher, she says, so it will not hurt them to learn a...

(The entire section is 663 words.)