Split Cherry Tree

by Jesse Stuart

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Last Updated October 13, 2023.

Of the hundreds of short stories that Jesse Stuart wrote, “Split Cherry Tree” is perhaps his most widely published. This story, first published in 1939, reflects Stuart’s philosophy on education. Indeed, as a rural educator during the Great Depression, Stuart was familiar with the struggle between modern education and agrarian values in small-town America at the time.

The story shows how people’s ideas were changing. Some still favored the old ways of rural life—being self-reliant and traditional. However, others were starting to see how important education and broadening horizons could be. In this story, Stuart makes the case for a modern education and its power to open up more opportunities for everyone.

The story begins as the narrator, Dave, pleads with his principal, Professor Herbert, to “whip [him] with a switch and let [him] go home early” rather than involve him in a more drawn-out punishment. Dave has damaged a cherry tree while on a field trip collecting animals. His fellow culprits have already paid for the damage. Dave, however, does not have the money and worries that his father, Luster, will beat him for coming home late. Professor Herbert is making Dave clean the building for two hours after school for two days in order to make amends.

As he sweeps the floor, Dave, full of regret, thinks about why he and his friends climbed up the cherry tree and damaged it.

Why did we ever climb that cherry tree and break it down for anyway? Why did we run crazy over the hills away from the crowd? Why did we do all of this? Six of us climbed up in a little cherry tree after one little lizard! Why did the tree split and fall with us? It should have been a stronger tree!

After the work is done, Dave hurries home, six miles away. He knows a massive workload awaits him on the family farm. He is aware his father is hard at work already, growing impatient and suspicious about his delay.

Immediately upon getting home, Dave starts feeding the cows, not bothering to change out of his school clothing. As Dave predicted, his dad is angry at him for being late and complains that too much modern education is making his son an irresponsible worker. When questioned, Dave tells his father what happened.

Luster decides to go to the school the next day and speak with Professor Herbert, who “ain’t from this county nohow.” Dave begs his father not to do it, but the old farmer is adamant.

I’ll straighten this thing out myself! I’ll take keer o’ Professor Herbert myself! He ain’t got no right to keep you in and let the other boys off jist because they’ve got th’ money! I’m a poor man. A bullet will go in a professor same as it will any man. It will go in a rich man same as it will a poor man.

The next day, after Dave completes his morning chores on the farm, Luster gets ready to go to school with him. Dave knows how out of place his salt-of-the-earth father will be in the school. He is glad that they are going early enough that most of his classmates will not be there to see him. He also notes that his father is bringing a gun with him.

Luster is out of place in the school building. He explains to Professor Herbert that he wants Dave, the only one of his eleven children to attend high school, to become educated. Chasing bugs and lizards around on a field trip is not what he...

(This entire section contains 878 words.)

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thinks an education should involve.

Professor Herbert, initially startled by the presence of Luster’s gun, explains Dave’s punishment, emphasizing the evolution of education in more recent years. In a surprising turn, the principal invites Luster to tour the school and gain a firsthand understanding of contemporary high-school life, an offer Luster graciously accepts. Together, they embark on an extensive day-long tour, culminating in Luster’s visit to his son’s biology class. There, he has his first experience looking at germs through a microscope.

The tour of the school also showcases Luster’s softer side. For instance, he urges Professor Herbert not to kill and dissect a snake. He seems to generally care about the well-being of animals.

“Man can defend hisself,” says Pa, “but cattle and mules can’t. We have the drop on ‘em. Ain’t nothin’ to a man that’ll beat a good pullin’ mule. He ain’t got th’ right kind o’ a heart!”

Spending a day in the school profoundly changes Luster’s point of view. By dismissal time, he seems to understand that the times have changed and wholeheartedly supports Dave’s modern education.

School has changed from my day and time. I’m a dead leaf, Dave. I’m behind. I don’t belong here.

As Professor Herbert offers to excuse Dave from the remaining two hours of work required to settle his debt, Luster vehemently opposes the idea. His perspective has shifted so significantly that he now willingly offers to assist his son in sweeping the school. He insists that Dave should prioritize receiving as much education as possible.

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