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Dicey sits in English class, half listening to her teacher, Mr. Chappelle, who asks the students for examples of conflict. Dicey sits in the back corner of the room, near the windows, and she looks with boredom at her classmates. The town children sit in front, the black children behind them, and the country children sit in the back. Dicey finds only one person in the class interesting: Wilhemina, or Mina, a pretty and popular black girl who sits at the front. After the other students have made a predictable list of conflicts, Mina raises her hand and suggests that conflict can exist between a person and the society in which he lives. After Mr. Chappelle thinks this over, he calls on Dicey, who, keeping her face uninterested, states that conflict can take place between a person and him or herself. Dicey glances out the window just in time to see Gram leaving the school building.
When classes end, Dicey rushes out to her bike, but stops when she sees a handsome older boy playing the guitar. Transfixed, she listens as he sings a folk song. But when he finishes and suggests she sit down, she shakes her head and turns to her bicycle without a word. At Millie's, she sets to work wiping down the canned goods on the shelves, observing absentmindedly as customers come in, purchase goods, and chat with Millie. At the end of her hour of work, Millie wonders why she has accomplished so little on the meat she has been butchering, and Dicey points out that the influx of customers slowed her down. Once she is home, Dicey heads straight for the barn and begins her work scraping layers of old paint off the boat. Sammy, bored, comes into the barn and asks if he can help. Dicey refuses his offer, and Sammy hangs around her petulantly, spilling a drawer of nails, hiding from her, and pestering her. Dicey tries to appease him by impatiently asking him about his day, but Sammy is not taken in by her attempt at showing interest in him. Finally, she asks him about fractions, and Dicey is perplexed when he demonstrates a stronger understanding of them than Maybeth.
That night after supper, James tells his family about a report his teacher has assigned. He emphasizes that he wants the report to be interesting to his classmates, as they will be required to read the reports aloud. Dicey is puzzled, as James has been placed in a class for the gifted. She asks whether his classmates are like him, and James replies that they are not. Gram announces that Maybeth's music teacher wants to give her piano lessons as she has demonstrated exceptional musical capability, and, before she can think to stop herself, Dicey suggests that they use the money she earns at Millie's not as an allowance, but as a way to pay for Maybeth's lesson. Gram point out that after the lessons, Dicey will still have two dollars of her paycheck, and recommends they each have a smaller allowance than initially anticipated. The children agree, and Maybeth quietly displays eagerness and excitement at the prospect of music lessons.
The next day at school, Dicey's science teacher tells them to pair up for a project. To her surprise, Mina approaches her and asks her to be her partner. Dicey is too surprised to do anything but accept, and Mina whispers to her conspiratorially that they are the smartest students in the class. When she returns home from school, Dicey finds that Gram has brought three men's shirts down from the attic and altered them to fit Dicey. She tries them on eagerly, and for a moment again notices her growing bosom. James returns home in a cloud of excitement, asking permission to take a paper route job from a friend, and Sammy rushes into the kitchen as well, proclaiming that he will help James. Dicey walks out to the barn, wondering at how self-sufficient her siblings have become. She feels content that they are all handling their problems so capably, but at the same time resents the fact that they are not turning to her for help.
In the beginning of Dicey's Song, Dicey tries to remain distant from the people around her other than her family. She sits in the back corner of the class and works hard so that everyone understands she does not care about their opinions of her, she turns from the handsome guitar player without a word, and she sits by passively in class as her classmates pair up for a project until Mina breaks her self-imposed solitude. These techniques have served Dicey well in the past. During their time in Provincetown, Dicey learned to fight to fend off her peers' taunts about Momma. Dicey became satisfied with having no friends and being left alone. During their long trip from Provincetown to Crisfield, Dicey became extremely wary of people around them and interacted with others as little as possible, and then only when her situation was so desperate that it became a necessity. Unwanted attention, Dicey learned, usually meant trouble. In Crisfield, when Dicey is suddenly relieved of her responsibility for her siblings, she begins even to close herself off from her siblings. When Sammy comes into the barn virtually begging for attention, she refuses to give it to him, stubbornly guarding her time alone with the boat. Dicey does not realize that Sammy's behavior is a way of asking her for help and partially, she genuinely wants to be free of responsibility for him. At the same time, when all of her siblings do not seem to need her help, Dicey cannot help but feel a little hurt and resentful.
Dicey feels ambivalent about how involved she wants others to be in her life. It is fitting, then, that Dicey suggests to Mr. Chappelle that conflict can take place between a person and him or herself. Dicey's desire to be free of responsibility for her siblings and her desire to be needed by them embodies one of the major conflicts of the book. Dicey will continue to struggle with how to let go at the same time as holding on and reaching out to her family. In some ways, Dicey longs to remain a child free from responsibility. She faces her growing bosom with a grim pragmatism, and she shuns any type of contact with others that involves emotional responsibility. At the same time, Dicey already is an adult, and has acted more responsibly and cleverly than many adults could in the same situation. She is reluctant to give up not only the power and control her quasi-adult role afforded her, but she is reluctant to give up the level of involvement in her siblings' lives that the role afforded her. In Crisfield, she must determine how to reach out to her family without subsuming her entire identity in her role as their caretaker and without dictating their lives.
James, on the other hand, does not possess Dicey's ability to shut out other people. James' firm insistence on writing a report that his classmates will like illustrates one of his prime sources of stress and frustration. While growing up in Provincetown, both Sammy and Dicey learned to deal with the cruelty of their peers by fighting and by becoming loners, but James, who is not as strong and fierce as his brother and sister, merely suffered at the teasing of his ostracizing peers. James wants to be liked by his friends, and his concern with his peers' reactions to his work foreshadows the main source of conflict for him in the novel.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Dicey's Song!