Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Young David is frantically washing dishes as he hears his mother’s footsteps approaching. He worries that he will not finish the dishes before he must leave for school; if he takes too long, his mother will not give him any breakfast. She enters the room and hits him in the face, knocking him to the floor. David knows that he must pretend to be scared and hurt, or his mother’s behavior will become more severe. In the past, she has punished him for what she called being “defiant”—that is, for not reacting to her abuse. Because he is very hungry, David is careful to act frightened in order to pacify his mother; even so, he worries that she will again choose not to feed him. Mother believes his act, and he is grateful that “I haven’t let her take away my will to somehow survive.”
David completes his chores and quickly eats his breakfast, which is leftover cereal from his brother’s breakfast. He knows that if he doesn’t eat quickly enough, Mother might change her mind about allowing him to eat. He reflects on the past, when he has had to eat out of the garbage can to get enough food.
Mother drives David to school, cautioning him not to tell the truth about his bruises. David notes that she used to be beautiful, but now her eyes are red, she has a hangover, her face is makeup-free, and she is overweight. David states that her “frazzled” appearance is “Mother’s typical look” now.
Since he is late to school, David reports to the office: he is greeted by the secretary and the nurse, who examines him. She assures David that he will be fine as he removes his clothing, which is filled with holes from daily wear. She looks at the marks on his body and face, asks him questions, and records information on a paper. David says that he is accustomed to examinations at school, which have been happening over the past year. The nurse points to an old scar on his stomach and asks David to confirm if that is where his mother stabbed him. He does confirm this information but instantly feels guilty and afraid. The nurse hugs him, and he is so comforted that he does not want to stop hugging her.
The principal, Mr. Hansen, and two teachers, Miss Woods and Mr. Ziegler, enter the office. Mr. Hansen is visibly upset and shouts that he’s “had enough of this,” prompting David to fear that his mother will be called. Shaking in terror, he begs Mr. Hansen not to tell his mother. Mr. Hansen promises David and sends him to class, where he is ostracized by the other children and the substitute teacher. David explains that he is no longer a good student since he “gave up on everything in my life,” such as escaping his troubles through schoolwork. He notes from the teacher’s reaction that she is not accustomed to the odor of a child who wears the same clothes every day. David says his seat is next to an open window at the back of the classroom because no one wants to be near him.
Before he can complete his test, David is summoned back to the office, where he finds Mr. Hansen with several teachers, the nurse, and a police officer. David fears he is in trouble for stealing food, which he has done in the past. However, Officer Smith assures David that he is there for a different reason: he wants to know how David’s mother treats him. David is terrified that...
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too many people know his horrible secret and that his mother will punish him for speaking of it. Once the nurse reveals his scar, David blurts out, “it was an accident.” He tells the officer that Mother did not intentionally stab him and explains that she merely punishes him because she thinks he is a bad boy.
David notes the adults’ expressions of concern. Miss Woods hugs him and leaves, crying. Mr. Hansen gives him food, which he hastily eats. Officer Smith asks for his address and telephone number, which worries David. He sees a group of teachers having lunch and feels humiliated that they know the truth about Mother:
It is so important for them to know that I’m not a bad boy. I want so much to be liked, to be loved.
The teachers say good-bye to David, and he walks out of school with the police officer.
Outside, the other children watch David leave, and some shout after him, “David’s busted.” Officer Smith reassures David that everything is all right, and they drive away from the school. David remembers what Mr. Zeigler told him: that he will tell the other students the real truth. David is comforted that everyone will finally know and wishes he could be there when they discover he’s not really a bad child.
When David and Officer Smith arrive at the police station, David is afraid to exit the car because he thinks Mother will be inside the precinct. Officer Smith leads him inside and begins to fill out a report. When he asks David again for his telephone number, David pleads to go back to school so that Office Smith won’t call Mother. David nervously watches the officer dial the phone and tell David’s mother that he is now in the custody of the San Mateo Juvenile Department and will not be returning home.
David leaves the station with Officer Smith, and as they drive out of the city, he sees a sign:
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL HIGHWAY IN THE WORLD.
The officer seems relieved as he says, “David Pelzer, you’re free.” David asks if he’s going to jail. Officer Smith assures him that his mother will not hurt him anymore. Understanding finally sets in, and a tear runs down David’s cheek. “I’m free?” he asks incredulously.