Chapters 16-17 Summary

On a school day in spring, Eugene and the other pupils in the upper grades are herded up to the assembly hall. The new principal, Mr. Leonard, presents them with a painting titled “The Song of the Lark.” The painting is to be the subject of a contest: the student who composes the best essay based on “The Song of the Lark” will receive five dollars. Eugene is especially intrigued and begins to write an essay, imagining what motivates the young girl in the painting. Mrs. Leonard, the principal’s wife, takes his essay directly to Mr. Leonard, who announces that Eugene is the winner. It is revealed that the contest is really an entrance exam for a private school the Leonards are founding. Gant dismisses the idea, but Eliza is attracted to the snob appeal of a private school and gladly pays the tuition of one hundred dollars for the first year.

In the fall, Mr. Leonard walks Eugene up to the antebellum house where the school will be held. He introduces him to Mrs. Leonard, who questions him about the books he has read. Eugene has read almost every book in the Altamont Public Library, and Mrs. Leonard is suitably impressed. She lends him a copy of The Cloister and the Hearth, a novel set in the Middle Ages. Eugene says it is the best book he has ever read.

Eugene spends the next four years at the Leonards’ school, though from Mr. Leonard he learns little. He struggles through Latin, as do the other boys. The students delight in getting Mr. Leonard distracted from his planned lesson by asking off-topic questions. The mathematics teacher, Amy Leonard, has an animal magnetism that entices Eugene to the point of peeking in her door as she is drying off from a bath. Another teacher is emaciated and looks older than his forty-nine years.

Eugene lives most of the time with Eliza at Dixieland; Gant claims that going to a private school has ruined him. At the end of the first year, Eliza tells the Leonards that she can no longer afford to send Eugene to their school. They agree to accept him at half tuition. She continues to take in odd borders, like Mrs. Morgan. This woman arrived without a husband but very advanced in pregnancy. Eliza took special care of her and gave her twenty dollars when she left to go to her family. Another man and his little girl became a charity case. He was out of work, but he performed most of the chores around the boarding house.

At school, Eugene and the other boys bully a young Jewish boy. When Mr. Leonard also physically roughs him up, Eugene sees the boy stand up to Mr. Leonard. Ever after, Eugene feels guilty about how he treated him.