Chapters 15 and 16

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Last Updated March 25, 2024.

Chapter 15

One October morning, Braithwaite is called to Florian’s office and told that one of his students, Patrick Fernman, has been arrested for wounding another Greenslade student with a knife during a scuffle. Braithwaite must prepare a report regarding Fernman’s attendance, conduct, abilities, and interests. The magistrates, he explains, already feel as if this school is too lenient on bad behavior, and this incident will solidify their beliefs. Braithwaite offers to go visit Fernman’s parents, and the old man gives him a note to take to them.

The class has been silent regarding their missing classmate, though Braithwaite is certain they all know about his trouble. He prepares the report and emphasizes the boy’s positive attributes, feeling justified especially since the wounded boy is a known bully. Gillian goes with Braithwaite to the boy’s home, and Mrs. Fernman has clearly spent much time weeping. As other adults are introduced to them, they, too, show signs of great sorrow. They are grateful for the kind letter from Florian and tell the teachers what happened.

The knife is a family heirloom, and Patrick had unwisely shown it, in its velvet case, to the other boy who immediately grabbed for it. In an attempt to keep the knife, the other boy was cut and Patrick’s hand was sliced quite badly. After getting the wound dressed, Patrick’s father took him to the police; the other boy had meanwhile been taken to the hospital. Braithwaite assures them he will do all he can to help their son, and Gillian is warmly comforting to them in their grief, even speaking Yiddish with the family. Braithwaite is glad she came with him.

The court hearing is on the following Monday, and Braithwaite attends. The room is full of young miscreants accused of everything from non-attendance to sexual misconduct, and most of them have brash and arrogant demeanors. In contrast, Fernman is standing abjectly with his parents and grandmother. The first case is that of a fourteen-year-old girl who has had “carnal knowledge” with several boys from her apartment building and is now pregnant. Her aunt is no longer willing to deal with her, so she is being sent to a home for young, unwed mothers. The girl remains impassive throughout the proceedings.

Braithwaite thinks about this girl, whose positive school report sounded much like that of many of his own female students, and realizes how little he knows about what happens to them outside of his classroom. Many of them are forced by their circumstances to work adult jobs to help support their families, and he recognizes how easily they could assume other adult behaviors because of their forced maturity. Braithwaite has only spoken objectively of sexual matters in the “absurd hope” that he will not offend or his remarks will not be misconstrued. Now he understands the ridiculousness of such thinking.

After several other cases, Fernman must face the judge. He is ashamed as he shuffles to the front of the room, his arm in a sling. After listening to the school report, the judge asks if the boy has ever been in trouble before. He has not, though the victim was in court just last month for burning his mother with a hot fireplace poker. The judge is serious and severe as he tells Fernman how dangerous a knife can be and how close he came to being a murderer. He understands the boy was sent on a simple errand to have the knife sharpened, but when fear and aggression are involved, awful things can happen.

The judge then turns the full force of his judicial voice on Greenslade and its too-lenient practices—though he does not actually name the school. It is the school which gives its students license to do evil and fosters in them a disregard for social institutions. The “ill-conceived schemes” of the “cranks and dreamers” who run the school are responsible for these kinds of behaviors. Finally, the judge tells the boy that his contrition is evident and likely punishment enough; however, for his own good he must see a probation officer once a week for the next year.

The family leaves the courtroom, greatly relieved, and Braithwaite spares them the embarrassment of talking to him after such a humiliating ordeal. While he in no way agrees with the judge’s assessment of Greenslade, Braithwaite now feels an even greater responsibility for the students in his care for six hours each day.

Chapter 16 Summary

Fernman comes back to school subdued but is soon part of the class activities and discussions. On several evenings, Braithwaite takes his class to see an opera, a play, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Braithwaite taught them the context and particulars of the play and opera before they went; afterwards, on the bus ride home, students discuss their experiences with insight and intelligence, something Braithwaite wishes the school’s detractors could hear. After the Globetrotters game, students are amazed to discover that many of the Black players are college graduates. The students are beginning to expand their vision of Black Americans.

One morning, the headmaster tells Braithwaite he has someone who would like to see him. When he walks into the office, Braithwaite finds a statuesque woman with auburn hair and immediately knows her to be Pamela Dare’s mother. The woman is distraught that her daughter has been staying out late and will not tell her where she has been. Mrs. Dare is confident Pamela will listen to Braithwaite, as she talks about him all the time at home and obviously admires him. When Braithwaite says her father should be the one who talks to her, Mrs. Dare tells him her husband died while serving in the Air Force when Pamela was eight and recalls that Braithwaite was also in the Air Force. He agrees to talk to Pamela.

He asks Pamela to meet with him for a few moments after school and she agrees, knowing her mother came to school out of concern. In the teacher’s lounge, Braithwaite and Gillian talk about their commitment to the children. Gillian believes Braithwaite is the more dedicated one. Weston, as always, is negative and assumes the worst every time parents (”these people”) come to school. Gillian warns Braithwaite not to treat Pamela like a child, for she is nearly a grown woman.

At their meeting, Pamela tells Braithwaite she has been spending time with her grandmother just around the corner from her house. Pamela does not think her mother cares about her as much as she does her reputation with her friends. When Braithwaite asks if she is in some kind of trouble, he can see that there is something bothering her. However, he does not want to pry too deeply or interfere in her personal life. She explains that other students gossip about her, and soon she tells him that after her father’s death, she and her mother were the best of friends. Everything changed between them after a recent holiday when her mother had begun to see other men. Pamela asks him to come speak with her mother, and Braithwaite agrees to do so, though Gillian wonders if it is a wise move. He assures her he thinks he can help and will be careful. She tells him he could teach at a much better school, but he is unwilling to consider the possibility. He realizes he has experienced some success here but has no idea if that could be replicated in another environment.

When he arrives, Mrs. Dare asks Pamela to leave the room and explains that her daughter came home unexpectedly one night during the holidays and found her in bed with a man. Nothing has been the same between them since then. Her biggest fear is that her nearly-grown daughter will find herself in serious adult trouble. Braithwaite is now sure he overestimated his ability to help and should not have come.

To get the meeting over with as quickly as possible, he speaks to Pamela in an impersonal tone, telling her he knows why she must be upset but he can see no reason for her to upset her mother by staying out so late. Both of the adults fear what could happen to her out on the streets so late at night. He tells Pamela that he expects her to treat her mother with the same respect and courtesy she has for him at school. The girl is contrite and respectful, agreeing to let her mother know where she is and to come home earlier.

Braithwaite knows this meeting had the potential to cause great scandal and is relieved to escape to the bus and his home without being seen by any of his students or their parents.

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Chapters 13 and 14

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Chapters 17 and 18