Holling Hoodhood, a seventh grader at Long Island's Camillo Junior High, is convinced that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him. All of Holling's classmates are members either of St. Adelbert's Catholic Church or Temple Beth-El; Holling alone is Presbyterian. This in itself would not be a problem, except on Wednesdays, when, during the final period of the day, half of the students are excused to attend Hebrew School, while the other half go to Catechism. This leaves only Holling in class with Mrs. Baker, and Holling is certain his teacher is not happy about the situation.
Holling lives in what he calls "the Perfect House," located "right smack in the middle of town." This pristine but uninviting dwelling represents the values of his father, an architect at Hoodhood and Associates. After his first day of school, Holling goes home looking for an ally in what he perceives will be an upcoming, year-long "war" with Mrs. Baker. Sadly, his mother, a secret smoker, shrugs off his concerns with platitudes, while his father makes it clear that Holling had better not do anything to antagonize Mrs. Baker because he is trying to win a lucrative contract with her family's business. Holling's older sister, locked inside her room listening to the Monkees, is no help either, dismissing him cynically with a cutting jibe.
At school the next day, Holling is certain that Mrs. Baker is plotting to have "something awful" happen to him when he is coerced by the older boys into playing soccer, and is assigned to guard Doug Swieteck's hulking brother. With the behemoth barreling towards him, Holling, his own survival foremost in his mind, runs to the goal, waits, and sidesteps at the last second, inadvertently tripping his opponent and causing him to hit his head with "an iron thunk" against the goal post. Holling's friend Danny Hupfer, and Doug Swieteck himself, are in awe that Holling was able to "take out" Doug's brother, but Meryl Lee Kowalski, whom Holling believes has been in love with him since the third grade, berates him for his behavior. After it is announced on the public address system that Doug Swieteck's brother is fine and "would be back in school after ten days of observation," Mrs. Baker looks at Holling, who is sure she hates his guts.
Holling's paranoia is intensified when he is called to the office to see Mr. Guareschi, the principal. Mrs. Baker has suggested that Holling sit in on a sixth grade mathematics class on Wednesdays, since he had gotten by last year with "a decidedly below-average grade." As Holling had technically passed, however, Mr. Guareschi decides that he is ineligible to take the course again. Mrs. Baker responds to this news impassively, and later that afternoon, Mr. Guareschi announces that "Lieutenant Tybalt Baker would soon be deployed to Vietnam...and (the school community) should wish him, together with Mrs. Baker, well."
During Wednesday afternoons in September, Holling is assigned to do odd jobs by Mrs. Baker, which frequently includes pounding chalkboard erasers. Because of his father, Holling is careful not to complain, and by the first week in October, Mrs. Baker's family business, Baker Sporting Emporium, has narrowed its architect choices to two: Hoodhood and Associates, and Kowalski and Associates. At recess one Wednesday, Mrs. Baker asks Holling to bring up trays of cream puffs that Mrs. Bigio, the campus cook, has made for a gathering of Wives of Vietnam Soldiers. Dutifully, Holling makes twelve trips to the first floor kitchen, carrying the trays one at a time and placing them by the open windows of the third floor seventh grade classroom. When the students leave for their religious education classes, Mrs. Baker gives Holling a big box of erasers to pound. Holling watches the clouds of chalkdust rise in the breeze, and is horrified when he realizes that they are wafting into the open classroom windows and settling gently on the trays of cream puffs. Mrs. Baker gives Holling a cream puff when he has finished, but he surreptitiously...