At the beginning of Nothing but the Truth, readers meet ninth-grader Philip Malloy through an entry in his diary. Philip is a gifted runner who is eager to join the school track team because he loves running and thinks girls like athletes. He spends much of his spare time training, reading Running magazine, and dreaming that he will one day run in the Olympics. Philip’s only problem is English class, where his unsympathetic teacher forces him to read books he dislikes and refuses to laugh when he cracks jokes about them.
This teacher, Miss Narwin, tells her sister in a letter that she actually likes Philip. However, she finds him frustrating because he exhibits “no desire to learn” and shows “a resistance—to accepting the idea that literature is important.” Through letters and memos, we learn that Miss Narwin has been teaching for decades, and that she is old enough to take early retirement. She does not want to retire, however. She loves teaching and wants to continue, so she applies for a grant to take a summer course that will help her learn to adapt better to today’s students.
Philip’s school district is in the process of writing up a budget, and the voters have already refused to approve the first draft. Money is tight, so the principal, Dr. Doane, rejects Miss Narwin’s grant application. She is hurt, largely because she knows that some other teachers received grants. A few days later, Dr. Doane takes Miss Narwin aside and says she does not need the extra education. According to Dr. Doane, Miss Narwin is the best English teacher in the school. The students who take her classes score higher on tests like the SAT than the ones who do not.
Meanwhile, in an English exam, Philip writes a flippant answer to a question about Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. He says that London is “pretty dumb” for taking so much time to write a book about a dog: “The book itself is a dog. That is what people can learn from [it].” Miss Narwin writes that this answer is “unacceptable” because it does not give the book “respectful, thoughtful attention.” Philip ends up with a D as his term grade in English.
Philip is disgusted with this grade, and he writes in his diary that Miss Narwin “didn’t get the joke.” However, he is not too worried about the issue until Coach Jamison, the track coach, pulls him aside and says he cannot run track because he is not passing English. Philip is horrified, but Coach Jamison is unsympathetic. He suggests that Philip ask Miss Narwin for extra work to improve the grade.
Philip does not ask Miss Narwin for help. Instead, he acts surly and uncooperative in class. He does not confess his problems to his parents either. He tells them that he is not going to try out for track, but he refuses to explain why and still trains constantly in his spare time. When his dad asks about the bad English grade, Philip says it is not his fault, and that Miss Narwin does not like him. “Nobody likes her,” he says.
In spite of what Philip says about Miss Narwin, the reader can see that she is a popular teacher. Any time Miss Narwin comes up in conversation with other students, everyone except Philip is neutral or positive about her teaching. Philip continues to refuse to approach her, though, and he decides he wants to get out of her classes.
Every morning at Philip’s school, the administrators play “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the intercom. Students are supposed to stand at “respectful, silent attention” during the song. One morning during homeroom with Miss Narwin, Philip hums along with the tape instead of standing silent. Miss Narwin makes him quiet down. The next day he does it again, and he refuses to stop when she tells him to. Miss Narwin says Philip is being disrespectful and sends him to speak with Dr. Palleni, the assistant principal.
When he talks with Dr. Palleni, Philip distorts the truth about his humming. He says he was singing because “it’s sort of a…patriotic thing with me.” He does not explain the problem with his English grade and the track team. He simply says that Miss Narwin does not like him and asks to be transferred out of her classes. Dr. Palleni does not seem to take this request seriously. He gives Philip a quick lecture about following rules and obeying teachers, then sends him on his way.
That evening Philip complains to his parents about Miss Narwin. Again he makes it sound like he wants to sing the national anthem in class because he is patriotic. His parents latch onto the idea that he is somehow being wronged. They say they support him, and Philip goes back to school feeling that his behavior is right—or at least that he can make people believe it is.
The next day, once again, Philip hums the national anthem during homeroom. Again Miss Narwin sends him to Dr. Palleni. The rules at Philip’s school say that a student must be suspended if he is sent to the assistant principal twice in a week for the same discipline issue. Dr. Palleni does...
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