At the beginning of Nothing but the Truth, readers meet ninth-grader Philip Malloy through an entry in his diary. Philip is a gifted runner who is eager to join the school track team because he loves running and thinks girls like athletes. He spends much of his spare time training, reading Running magazine, and dreaming that he will one day run in the Olympics. Philip’s only problem is English class, where his unsympathetic teacher forces him to read books he dislikes and refuses to laugh when he cracks jokes about them.
This teacher, Miss Narwin, tells her sister in a letter that she actually likes Philip. However, she finds him frustrating because he exhibits “no desire to learn” and shows “a resistance—to accepting the idea that literature is important.” Through letters and memos, we learn that Miss Narwin has been teaching for decades, and that she is old enough to take early retirement. She does not want to retire, however. She loves teaching and wants to continue, so she applies for a grant to take a summer course that will help her learn to adapt better to today’s students.
Philip’s school district is in the process of writing up a budget, and the voters have already refused to approve the first draft. Money is tight, so the principal, Dr. Doane, rejects Miss Narwin’s grant application. She is hurt, largely because she knows that some other teachers received grants. A few days later, Dr. Doane takes Miss Narwin aside and says she does not need the extra education. According to Dr. Doane, Miss Narwin is the best English teacher in the school. The students who take her classes score higher on tests like the SAT than the ones who do not.
Meanwhile, in an English exam, Philip writes a flippant answer to a question about Jack London’s TheCall of the Wild. He says that London is “pretty dumb” for taking so much time to write a book about a dog: “The book itself is a dog. That is what people can learn from [it].” Miss Narwin writes that this answer is “unacceptable” because it does not give the book “respectful, thoughtful attention.” Philip ends up with a D as his term grade in English.
Philip is disgusted with this grade, and he writes in his diary that Miss Narwin “didn’t get the joke.” However, he is not too worried about the issue until Coach Jamison, the track coach, pulls him aside and says he cannot run track because he is not passing English. Philip is horrified, but Coach Jamison is unsympathetic. He suggests that Philip ask Miss Narwin for extra work to improve the grade.
Philip does not ask Miss Narwin for help. Instead, he acts surly and uncooperative in class. He does not confess his problems to his parents either. He tells them that he is not going to try out for track, but he refuses to explain why and still trains constantly in his spare time. When his dad asks about the bad English grade, Philip says it is not his fault, and that Miss Narwin does not like him. “Nobody likes her,” he says.
In spite of what Philip says about Miss Narwin, the reader can see that she is a popular teacher. Any time Miss Narwin comes up in conversation with other students, everyone except Philip is neutral or positive about her teaching. Philip continues to refuse to approach her, though, and he decides he wants to get out of her classes.
Every morning at Philip’s school, the administrators play “The...
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Star-Spangled Banner” over the intercom. Students are supposed to stand at “respectful, silent attention” during the song. One morning during homeroom with Miss Narwin, Philip hums along with the tape instead of standing silent. Miss Narwin makes him quiet down. The next day he does it again, and he refuses to stop when she tells him to. Miss Narwin says Philip is being disrespectful and sends him to speak with Dr. Palleni, the assistant principal.
When he talks with Dr. Palleni, Philip distorts the truth about his humming. He says he was singing because “it’s sort of a…patriotic thing with me.” He does not explain the problem with his English grade and the track team. He simply says that Miss Narwin does not like him and asks to be transferred out of her classes. Dr. Palleni does not seem to take this request seriously. He gives Philip a quick lecture about following rules and obeying teachers, then sends him on his way.
That evening Philip complains to his parents about Miss Narwin. Again he makes it sound like he wants to sing the national anthem in class because he is patriotic. His parents latch onto the idea that he is somehow being wronged. They say they support him, and Philip goes back to school feeling that his behavior is right—or at least that he can make people believe it is.
The next day, once again, Philip hums the national anthem during homeroom. Again Miss Narwin sends him to Dr. Palleni. The rules at Philip’s school say that a student must be suspended if he is sent to the assistant principal twice in a week for the same discipline issue. Dr. Palleni does not want to suspend Philip over such a small offense, so he tries to convince Philip to apologize to his teacher and his class. Philip refuses. He insists that Miss Narwin is wrong, and he demands to be removed from Miss Narwin’s classes. Eventually Dr. Palleni calls Philip’s mother to pick him up and take him home. When Mrs. Malloy arrives, she tries to argue that students should be allowed to sing the national anthem in class. Dr. Palleni brushes her off, focusing only on the issue of rules. She goes home convinced that Philip’s school has a rule against singing the national anthem.
After she leaves, Dr. Palleni and Miss Narwin discuss Philip’s behavior. Miss Narwin objects to the suspension, saying it is too strict a punishment for such a small issue. Dr. Palleni takes the position that rules are rules, and that Philip is probably acting out at school because of problems at home. They move Philip to a different homeroom but keep him in Miss Narwin’s English class. Miss Narwin says she will try to talk to the boy and figure out what is going on when he returns to school.
After Philip gets home, he gets a call from a friend, Ken Barchet, who thinks his behavior in homeroom was funny. It is clear from Ken’s words that he thinks Philip was trying to annoy Miss Narwin, not express patriotism. Philip is noncommittal with Ken, but he keeps telling his parents that he was being respectful and patriotic. His parents are outraged over the issue. They take Philip to speak with a neighbor, Ted Griffen, who is running for a position on the school board. A local reporter, Jennifer Stewart, happens to be there interviewing him. They both act outraged when they hear what Philip has to say.
The next day, Jennifer Stewart calls several teachers and school officials to check the facts of Philip’s story. She is very confrontational, demanding to know why they would suspend a boy for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The district superintendent assures her that there is no rule against singing the national anthem at school. Miss Narwin and Dr. Palleni assure Jennifer that they would never punish a student for patriotism, but they both refuse to say exactly why they did suspend Philip. Jennifer ends up printing an extremely one-sided story that makes Miss Narwin sound like a tyrant. Meanwhile, Ted Griffen delivers a series of speeches saying he will not allow schools to prevent patriotism.
Philip does not even know about the story in the newspaper until Ken tells him about it. “It ain’t true. But it’s funny,” Ken says. Philip’s parents are triumphant, but Philip does not really understand how grave the issue is. In his diary, he maintains that the whole problem is Miss Narwin’s fault.
Miss Narwin is horrified by the article, but she hopes the story will blow over soon. Her superiors are upset too. The superintendent worries that bad press about schools will prevent people from passing his budget proposal. He speaks with Dr. Doane and demands to know exactly what happened in Miss Narwin’s classroom so he can make a statement that portrays the schools in a good light.
Newspapers and radio talk show hosts all over the country pick up Philip’s story, each of them basing their treatment on the original biased story. Jake Barlow, a conservative talk show host, calls Miss Narwin “a creep of a teacher” who “squelches” patriotism. He talks to a series of callers about the issue, applauding everyone who agrees with him. Only one caller points out that the newspaper article only tells one side of the story without taking the teacher’s perspective into account, and Barlow ridicules him.
Dr. Palleni and Dr. Sloane put together a report about what happened in Miss Narwin’s classroom. They interview students who were there. Some try to take a neutral position, and others say that Philip was acting out. However, none of them suggest that Miss Narwin did anything wrong. Dr. Doane and Dr. Palleni write a series of memos about the incident, emphasizing that Philip sang the anthem in a “loud, raucous, disrespectful manner” on several occasions, and that this is why he was suspended. In Dr. Doanes’s version of the memo, she makes a point of saying that Philip was suspended partly so that he would learn to show proper respect for the national anthem—as well as his teacher and his fellow students—although this was never part of the discussion with Philip.
Philip begins receiving telegrams and letters that applaud him for standing up for American values. His parents are thrilled, but Philip does not seem happy. By now he seems to understand that the story is out of his control. He writes in his diary that he is “a little nervous” about going back to school.
Some people send telegrams and letters to Miss Narwin, too. The vast majority of them attack her. They say she is unpatriotic and call her a disgrace to the teaching profession. One veteran who was injured in a war says simply, “I really hate people like you.” To make matters worse, Miss Narwin soon finds that the administrators are not standing behind her. The district superintendent issues a statement saying that the school supports patriotism, but he does not explain why Philip was really suspended. He makes Miss Narwin take a leave from the school, and he grants her application to pay for a summer course so he can tell the media that she is getting a “refresher course in our values.” Miss Narwin understands that her administration is trying to embarrass her into taking early retirement in order to preserve their public image.
As all these events are unfolding, Philip finally goes to see Miss Narwin and ask her for extra work in English to improve his grade so he can take part in track. It is far too late for this. When Miss Narwin sees him, she is so angry and flustered that she simply throws him out of the room. A reporter from a large newspaper calls her and offers to fly out and listen to her side of the story. She agrees, and the reporter writes her side of the story, but by now the issue is starting to blow over. The story never ends up getting printed.
The kids at Philip’s school see Miss Narwin getting pushed out, and they are outraged. Those who saw Philip’s behavior in class do not believe it had anything to do with patriotism. A few of them start a petition that says he was wrong. Hurt by their rejection, Philip goes home and refuses to return to the school.
As the story ends, the voters reject the school budget, and Miss Narwin is on suspension. Philip enrolls in a local private school, Washington Academy. On his first day, he learns that the school has no track team, so he still does not get to follow his dream. He goes to homeroom, where the teacher asks him to lead the class in the national anthem. Faced with this request, Philip is forced to tell the truth: “I don’t know the words.”