Children learn things at school that teachers don’t mean to teach.

Mrs. Price is an elementary school math teacher, but math is not the only thing her students have been taught over the course of the story. Through her actions, Mrs. Price impresses upon her students the idea that she is the person in charge of the classroom. Even as Rachel says that the sweater is not hers, Mrs. Price teaches that her version of the truth is the correct one, and that Rachel’s version—as well as her feelings—don’t matter. She has decided that she will make Rachel take the sweater, whether Rachel wants it or not, because she wants to resolve this issue, regardless of the cost to any one student’s dignity. 

Mrs. Price also teaches that those who tell her what she wants to hear, even if the students are misguided or wrong, will curry favor. She wants any question of the sweater’s owner to be swiftly answered and Sylvia provides the answer that Mrs. Price desires. Mrs. Price wants to be right, and even if she is not, she will be the person who decides what is right and wrong. She is teaching her students how to wield power, without regard to respect or kindness, and at the expense of those who find themselves unable to speak up. 

Getting older comes with a growing awareness of unequal treatment.

Based on her anticipation of her birthday party after school, of the singing and presents and cake, it can be concluded that Rachel’s family is a close-knit, supportive group. This offers a direct contrast to Rachel’s experience at school on her eleventh birthday—and possibly throughout the school year—during which she is treated dismissively by her teacher and at least one other student. Her family serves as a beacon of light in the darkness of the sweater incident, and Rachel clings to those thoughts to help her get through the day. School is merely the thing she has to endure to make it to the end of the day, to the comfort of her family and the excitement of her birthday celebration. However, the injustice at school tempers her feelings of excitement, suggesting the incident is not an isolated one in the grand scheme of Rachel’s life, and that she will endure further embarrassments and injustices the older she gets. Rachel views each age as a different persona and wishes she could draw on the emotional intelligence of an older self, but since she has only the knowledge and experience of her past ages—ages one through ten—she cries instead and recognizes the childishness of it, because she is still a child.

Despite her youth, however, Rachel is keenly aware of not just how young she is and how little she’s experienced, she’s also aware of how that youth renders her powerless. She believes that Mrs. Price is right because she is older, and she desperately wants to be older, too, so that she may enjoy what she sees as the benefits of authority and credibility. This is an awareness she might not have had as an even younger child, and it’s ironic that the older she gets, the more she realizes how difficult it is to still be relatively young.

An uncaring person in a position of authority can have far-reaching consequences.

Mrs. Price is presented as a poor teacher. She wants to be rid of the red sweater in the coatroom, and she seems to be unconcerned with who it actually belongs to. That is, she wants to solve a problem and doesn’t care how she does it—even if it creates further problems, such as a crying child. Mrs. Price is quick to force the sweater into Rachel’s hands by incorrectly claiming that she remembers seeing Rachel wear it before, and Rachel’s insistence that this isn’t true does not make Mrs. Price reconsider her memory. Forcing Rachel to wear the sweater is a bizarre and cruel thing to do and appears designed to impose her will on a student for no reason other than the fact that she can. Ironically, Mrs. Price undermines her own authority in a way by siding with one student over another, as the later revelation that the sweater was Phyllis Lopez’s all along compromises her infallibility. In this case, she is proven indisputably wrong. However, justice comes too late; Rachel and her fellow classmates have already witnessed the incident and catalogued it as an example of what happens when a child’s view differs from that of an adult. Further, Rachel’s birthday has been marred by the unnecessary humiliation, and by the end of the story, she characterizes her childhood as something to be endured—she wants to be “anything but eleven” and wishes today were over and gone, “like a runaway balloon.”