A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Although school is a mean place, Francie still enjoys it, especially because of twoteachers, who each come once a week: Mr. Morton, who teaches music, and Miss Bernstone, whoteaches drawing. All the teachers dress nicely the days Mr. Morton comes; he is a jolly man who made good music fun and accessible. The teachers are all jealous of Mrs.Bernstone, who is beautiful and does not spend all her nights alone. Both these teacherslove the poor, unwashed children better than the cared-for ones. The narrato r says schoolwould have been pure heaven if all teachers were like these two.
Francie learns to read. She all at once sees words on the page, instead of just sounds, anddecides she will read a book a day as long as she lives. Francie also makes a game out ofarithmetic, imagining each number as a member of a family. The numbers th at are theeasiest in terms of arithmetic are the nice family members. When she has a number with manydigits, she imagines those family members together. In this way, Francie puts arithmeticinto human terms.
Francie goes out walking one fall day, and ends up in a beautiful neighborhood with no tenements. Eventually, she happens upon a school, made of old brick, with grass and a field across from it. She decides that this is the school she wants to go to, and
waits for her father to get home to ask him about it. He promises to go with her to see it the next day.
This unfamiliar neighborhood is filled with families who have lived in America for five and six generations, unlike Francie's neighborhood, in which few people can say that they themselves were born in the United States. Francie's teacher at one point ask
ed the children their lineage. Francie impressed the whole class, as she was the only one whose parents were not born in another country.
A prostitute walks by Francie and Johnny on their walk, and Johnny tells Francie that the woman is not bad, just unlucky. When Johnny sees the school, he is taken by it, and starts to sing a song right there in the street. Francie begins to worry when Joh
nny doesn't say anything about her going to the new school, but Johnny suggests they find a house in the neighborhood, whose address they can copy down. The schools will only let her transfer if she proves that her family lives in the neighborhood. Johnny
explains that this is a bad thing to do, but it's bad for the sake of a greater good.
Katie will have nothing to do with the lie, but does no stop Johnny from writing a note to the principal that they Nolans will be moving. The new school is wonderful; the children are more protected, since their parents have been in America so long, and a
re aware of all their rights. Mr. Jenson, the janitor at the school, is a kind, well-respected man, who is the favorite of all the students. Francie continually picks up any debris scattered around the home whose address Johnny had taken, in a gesture
of gratitude. She doesn't even mind walking forty-eight blocks to and from school every day.
Francie's schooling shows how she will live a life with more opportunities than her parents have had. We can remember the conversation between Mary Rommely and Katie upon Francie's birth. Mary has great hope because her children can read and write, un
like her. This idea foreshadows that like Katie, Francie will be better educated than her mother. When Francie learns to read, it is the first step out of a dreary, impoverished life. Books replace friends for her, and cure her loneliness.
When Francie starts making stories out of numbers, she shows she has the heart a story-teller. Like her father, she has a great capacity to imagine, and hard numbers alone are transformed into people with feelings and personalities. (The reader remembers
Lizzie Tynmore's premonition that one day Francie will write stories.) Francie is constantly concocting a world inside her head, reading books, and telling herself stories, to both escape her life and to make more sense of it. This habit will become m
ore important in later chapters.
Francie's move to the new school shows an instance in which Johnny's good intentions actually come into fruition. Francie astutely figures out that her mother would never go out of her way to help Francie move to a fancier school. It is Johnny who looks a
t the school and is enchanted.
The commentary on American identity in Chapter 23 characterizes the immigrant community in a context with other communities. The narrator contrasts the two neighborhoods—Francie's family's neighborhood and the neighborhood where her new school is&md
ash;by contrasting how long their residents have lived in the United States. This feature separates the two; living in the United States longer means more opportunity and a better quality of life. Also, the social hierarchy is structured around how long o
ne has lived in the United States. Francie is proud that, unlike her peers at her old school, she has parents who were born in Brooklyn. In fact, this fact is enough for the teacher to deem Francie a bona fide "American." The narrator says that the new sc
hool feels kinder mostly because the parents of the children have lived in the United States longer; because they know their rights as citizens, they are not exploited so easily by the system. Ethnic identity is not celebrated in their community, and is s
ometimes the cause for shame.
Mr. Jenson represents the kind atmosphere at Francie's new school. As a janitor, he belongs to the lower class. In fact, Katie and Johnny used to be janitors at a school just like Mr. Jenson. (Katie still does janitorial work.) The respect paid to him by
the students and faculty shows that Francie will be treated well. In this case, social standing does not matter so much as kindness and intelligence. Unlike the old school, where the teachers only liked the well cared-for students, here all students are m
ore or less on equal ground.