Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1688
Although the White House insists that the war in Vietnam is going well in March, it is clear from television news reports that the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Five thousand Marines are trapped in Khesanh, and among the missing is Mrs. Baker's husband. Holling's sister is devastated at this turn of events, and even Holling's father can only watch in stunned amazement. Mrs. Baker maintains a stoic attitude at school, but at times her eyes are red and drippy. On the "Ides of March," the day that Julius Caesar met his death, members of the school board are coming to evaluate teacher and student performance. Also scheduled for that day are try-out finals for the cross-country team; Coach Quatrini expects all male students to participate.
Hoodhood and Associates needs a receptionist, and Holling's father forces Holling's sister to take the job, even though she wants to work for Bobby Kennedy's campaign instead. Holling's sister believes that Kennedy will end the war and the racial discrimination poisoning the country, but Holling's father dismisses him as "a rich kid from Cape Cod who's never done anything on his own." Holling's father tells Holling's sister that she "might as well go work for that Martin Luther King," whom he labels a Communist. Holling himself is glad that Kennedy is running for president. Sickened by the war and by politics, he "just want(s) someone to say the plain truth," and thinks Bobby Kennedy might be that someone.
Mrs. Baker watches Holling preparing for cross-country tryouts, and points out deficiencies in his form. As a result of her coaching, Holling runs "like Jesse Owens" the next day and beats "a whole lot of eighth graders." To express his thanks, Holling offers Mrs. Baker some teaching tips in preparation for the school board observation. When Mrs. Baker wryly asks if he has ever been an English teacher, Holling counters by saying she has never been a track runner. Mrs. Baker considers Holling's suggestions, and, before he leaves, discreetly shows him an Olympic medal she won in 1956.
Holling and Mrs. Baker are engaged in a dispute about Shakespeare when the school board members arrive for classroom observations. Noting the volume of plays on Holling's desk, one of the board members condescendingly asks if Holling can recite some lines, and Holling, noting the look in Mrs. Baker's eyes, stifles his inclination to spew forth some of Shakespeare's choice curses, and instead performs a moving selection from Julius Caesar. The pompous gentleman is silenced, and the rest of the observation goes well, until suddenly, one of the asbestos tiles in the ceiling gives way, and Sycorax and Caliban tumble into the lap of Mrs. Sidman, a new member of the board. In the ensuing chaos, Mrs. Sidman grabs the rats by the backs of their necks and transports them to a cage in the basement. When the exterminator comes for the rats and drops the cage, Sycorax and Caliban escape once again, racing after Holling, who is competing in tryout finals. The rats are smashed beneath the wheels of a school bus, while Holling sets a new record for the three-mile run, and is named to the varsity team.
With the situation in Vietnam worsening, Mai Thi becomes the target of intense bullying. When an eighth grader makes an especially hurtful remark to her in the cafeteria, Danny Hupfer comes to her defense, breaking the offender's nose. Danny is suspended for four days, but his parents are proud of him, and take him on a trip to Washington, D.C. When he returns, Mrs. Bigio, who had earlier treated Mai Thi unkindly herself in the aftermath of her husband's death, makes a Vietnamese snack for Mrs. Baker's class. As American soldiers remain trapped in Khesanh half a world away, Mai Thi and her classmates enjoy their treats, and she and Mrs. Bigio embrace, holding each other as if "they did not (ever) want to let go."
April is a month of momentous changes. Mrs. Sidman becomes principal at Camillo Junior High, and Holling's record-setting time at tryouts is announced, causing increased ire in his older teammates. Operation Pegasus is launched in Vietnam, with twenty thousand American troops marching to the aid of Marines trapped at Khesanh. Lyndon Johnson decides that he will not seek the Presidency again, and Holling's father declares jubilantly that his company's competition, Kowalski and Associates, is going out of business. Meryl Lee tells Holling that since her father's company is shutting down, her family might be moving away. Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot and killed in Memphis, and there are riots across the nation.
On Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, Holling's father is supposed to pick Holling up early from school and drive him to the game, where they will meet Danny, Doug, and their fathers and use the tickets the boys had gotten from Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke. To Holling's humiliation, his father does not show up, but when the rest of the students leave for their Wednesday religious education classes, Mrs. Baker tells him that she thinks she can get him down to the Stadium in time to see at least part of the game. The two arrive during the third inning; Mel Stottlemyre throws a four-hit shutout for New York, and afterwards, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke invite the group from Camillo Junior High down on the field. When Mrs. Baker asks Joe Pepitone about some scaffolding that has been erected in a section of the Stadium, she learns that "lots of places in the Stadium need repairs, and that "the boss" is looking for an architect to do the job. When it is time to go, Holling rides with Danny Hupfer and his father, and Mrs. Baker stays to meet "the boss."
During spring break, Danny, Mai Thi, Holling, and Meryl Lee meet in the afternoons at Woolworth's for Cokes and hamburgers "for as long as (their) allowances (hold) out." Holling's sister has a new friend named Chit who drives a yellow VW bug with bright flower decals. At supper one evening, Holling's sister mentions that she plans to go to college at Columbia University, where students are protesting against the war and against racism, but her father informs her that she already has a job at Hoodhood and Associates, and will not be going anywhere. On the first Saturday morning after school resumes, there is a big cross-country meet. In the junior varsity heat, Danny Hupfer is waylaid by a "clump of eighth graders" who are not happy to see a seventh grader in the lead. His knees bloody, Danny, using Shakespeare's words, tells Holling to "beat the pied ninnies" in the varsity run. With the Hupfers, Kowalskis, and Mrs. Baker cheering him on, Holling eludes the attempts of the older boys to sabotage his run, and does just that.
Events move quickly during March and April, creating the sense that things are approaching a climax. The political climate in the nation is deteriorating rapidly, and the situation in Vietnam is grim. Young idealists like Holling and his sister look to men like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. to make things better, and they clash with those who stubbornly work to preserve the status quo. It appears that "the whole world is going crazy," and the assassination of Dr. King seems to signal the end of a dream.
The unrest that is tearing the country apart is mirrored in the relationship between Holling's father and his children. Although he exhibits brief glimpses of humanity, such as when he is shocked into silence by the carnage at Khesanh and when he actually misses work to watch the funeral of Dr. King on television, Holling's father is proving on the whole to be a man with few redeeming qualities. Unable to view the world from anything but his own narrow perspective, he is completely insensitive to his children's wants and needs. Holling's father lets Holling down yet again by failing to take him to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, and the significance of his absence at the cross-country meet is highlighted by the presence of people like the Kowalskis and Mrs. Baker, who really care about Holling. Holling's father's behavior towards Holling's sister is even more shocking; he completely denies her the right to determine the course of her own life, ridiculing her ideas and dismissing her aspirations, and even forbidding her to go to college so she can work at his company. It is clear that Holling's father's controlling treatment of his children cannot go on indefinitely; Holling's sister is becoming increasingly rebellious, and Holling is beginning to think for himself as well.
In contrast to his father, Holling is continuing to grow in his ability to see things from viewpoints other than his own. He immediately expresses concern for the Kowalskis when his father announces that Kowalski and Associates is "finished," and when Mrs. Baker looks meaningfully at him after the school board member challenges him to recite from Shakespeare, Holling interprets her entreaty correctly. Previously, he would have thought that she was communicating "a death threat," and behaved well simply to avoid trouble, but now, he realizes that his response is important to his teacher's reputation, and performs admirably, showing qualities of "goodness and honesty and faithfulness" for her sake.
Simultaneously realistic and larger than life, Mrs. Baker is a paradox. She is eminently human in the way she handles the stress of her husband's deployment, but she saves the day repeatedly for Holling, conveniently, and with a seemingly unlimited skill set. Mrs. Baker is an Olympic champion and a connoisseur of Shakespeare who has connections with numerous eminent heroes of the sporting world. Despite her sometimes unbelievably superhuman qualities, however, Mrs. Baker is first and foremost the model of a caring adult in Holling's life and the lives of her students. Holling is able to overcome the deficiencies of his own family situation to become an honorable and caring young man because of the support of Mrs. Baker, who, like Shakespeare, knows something about "the endurance of love."