What is the lesson of the story?
"Charles," by Shirley Jackson, is a humorous little story, but one with some lessons about parents, children, and the supposed socializing provided in school. A mother is narrating the story, which is about sending her little boy, Laurie, off to school for the first time. She is sad to see her "sweet-voiced nursery school tot" (line 5) go off on his first day, seeing him "replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye to me" (lines 5-6).
Laurie comes home from school on his very first day reporting the misdeeds of his classmate, Charles, and this sets the pattern for weeks and weeks of Charles' misdeeds in school, all duly reported by Laurie to his parents. Laurie reports that Charles has a few weeks of improvement, but then reports that he has regressed into bad behavior by the time of the second PTA meeting, which Laurie's mother is able to attend. She is quite curious to meet Charles' mother, wondering what kind of parent would produce such a badly-behaved child. When she inquires, she learns there is no Charles in the class.
The reasonable inference is that Laurie is Charles, that all of Charles' misdeeds are actually those of Laurie. One lesson of the story is that parents are often deluded about their children, no matter how clearly they think they see them. While Laurie's mother understands that school will change him, she cannot see that he is going to become a demonic kindergartner. Another lesson is that probably we should not judge others' parenting, since our own children are quite capable of being dreadful. Viewing the story with some empathy for Laurie, we can learn that it is difficult to be thrust into this new environment, which causes many children to act out in response. We can also see that Laurie may feel a need to let his parents know about his behavior, so that perhaps they can help him do better, as we are wont to seek advice about a personal problem and say it is "for a friend" that we are asking. This might be the only way Laurie can let his parents know what he is doing. Of course, this takes us back to the idea that parents do not necessarily know their own children. Finally, we all like to believe that school has a powerful socializing impact on children. In the long run, this is mostly true, but Laurie's socialization is not going to happen overnight. Socialization is a process, not a product.