In Gary D. Schmidt’s novel for young readers titled The Wednesday Wars, the word “chrysanthemum” occurs at two crucial moments. Early in the novel, Holling Hoodhood good-naturedly offers his teacher, Mrs. Baker, some advice (which she generally welcomes) about how to be an even more effective teacher. He suggests that when a student does something well, she should let the student know by using some kind of secret code. She asks him what specific code she should use. He replies,
“Well, maybe ‘Azalea’ for something good, and ‘Chrysanthemum’ for something really good.’”
In response, Mrs. Baker thanks Holling for this advice but says that she will simply say in plain English when someone has done something well.
Later in the book, after Holling stands up to his domineering father and expresses his own honest opinion about how life should be lived, Holling feels somewhat isolated.
After a discussion in which Mrs. Baker implies that Holling will ultimately live a good and satisfying life, he wishes her well.
And she smiled – not a teacher smile. “Chrysanthemum,” she said.
In other words, Mrs. Baker uses the code that Holling had long ago suggested in order to communicate her approval of – and admiration for – his recent behavior.
This moment is significant for several reasons, including the following:
- Mrs. Baker’s reply suggests that she had paid careful attention to Holling earlier and had perhaps been gently amused by his suggested code, even though she had not used it at first.
- Her reply suggests that she never forgot that earlier conversation, even though she had seemed at the time to dismiss his suggestion.
- Her reply suggests the special bond that has now developed between this teacher and this student.
- Her reply suggests that she wants to communicate her approval to Holling in a way that he will especially appreciate and perhaps without her being too sentimental.
- Her reply suggests that she realizes that Holling will realize the special nature of her communication. This is an exchange that only he will understand.