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Jesse Stuart's short story, "Split Cherry Tree" is an enduring narrative of the struggles of rural people outside the cultural mainstream as well as the problems of the "generation gap." Two sentences that are key to an understanding of these themes are the following:
"A bullet will make a hole in a schoolteacher same as it will anybody else."
As an uneducated man who has never left his rural area, Luster Sexton is culturally very backward. Consequently, because of his sense of inferiority, he reacts defensively regarding Professor Herbert's making Dave work off the dollar that the others have paid for the cherry tree which split when they climbed it. For, he feels that Professor Herbert has singled out Dave because he is poor:
"I'll show 'im it ain't right to keep one boy in and let the rest go scot-free. My boy is good as th'rest, ain't he? A bullet will make a hole in a schoolteacher same as it will anybody else. He can't do me that way and get by with it. I'll plug 'im first.
It is with this defensive attitude that Pa accompanies the apprehensive Dave to school. However, Mr. Sexton is backward and ignorant of many modern ideas, but he is far from stupid. When Professor Herbert very wisely explains the purpose of the field trip as well as taking Pa around the school's science department, quoting his own father--"Seein' is believin'"--as he tours the area, Pa realizes that his bringing his gun was unnecessary. Ironically, Professor Herbert learns that Pa has a depth and understanding to him, especially about nature. Pa, in turn, has come to realize what a good teacher and decent man Professor Herbert really is.
"School has changed from my day and time; I'm a dead leaf, Dave.
After classes are over, Dave notices as his father stands in the hallway watching the students file out. Dave remarks,
He looked lost among us. He looked like a leaf turned brown on the tree among the treetop filled with growing leaves.
This motif of a leaf has run throughout the narrative as earlier Pa stands under "a leafless elm" and in his fear Dave shakes "like a leaf in the wind." Finally, as Pa assists Dave with his sweeping for Professor Herbert, he tells Dave how he realizes that he is behind the times. With his strong sense of honor, he conveys his understanding of the teacher's punishment of Dave, and he insists that Dave pay his debt for the tree. He tells Professor Herbert that in this he is right that Dave do the work. Then, as they sweep floors after Herbert leaves, Pa apologizes to Dave for misjudging the procedures at the school. Further, he tells Dave that although he is a strong, physical man, he is "behind." Realizing his backwardness, Pa wants Dave to have cleaner clothers and softer hands--a better life because of his education. But, he stresses, Dave must always "pay [his] debts and be honest."
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