Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Unfair Relationship Between the Powerful and the Powerless 

The power dynamic in Rachel’s classroom is very clear: Mrs. Price is in charge, and the students have little or no power. Owing both to her youth and to her deference to Mrs. Price, Rachel cannot say no when the sweater is essentially assigned to her. Rachel’s classmate Sylvia seems to have better access to Mrs. Price’s power because her suggestion that the sweater belongs to Rachel is assumed to be correct, which indicates that Rachel occupies a space further down in the classroom hierarchy, and that being singled out is a pattern. Mrs. Price even invents a memory of Rachel wearing the sweater in order to reinforce her decision that the sweater is Rachel’s. Because Mrs. Price is older, meaning she can’t be wrong just as assuredly as Rachel can’t be right, Rachel puts the sweater on even though she knows without a doubt that it isn’t hers. The incident, and the lack of consequences once the sweater is revealed not to be Rachel’s, suggests truth has no bearing on power and that the powerful make their own truth at the expense of the powerless.

The Dichotomy of Family and Society 

That Rachel is excited about her eleventh birthday party and the family-centric activities her loved ones have planned suggests to the reader that her family is an important and positive force in her life. Her parents are supportive and excited to celebrate with her, as evidenced by the things she imagines will happen. Her excitement is juxtaposed with, and ultimately compromised by, her feelings of misery at school. If her home and family represent everything that is good in her life, her time at school represents the negative, and suggests the safety and happiness inherent in the good can be tainted. Mrs. Price is portrayed as being the opposite of Rachel’s family, uninterested in supporting her or listening to anything she has to say. Rachel is someone over whom Mrs. Price has power, and as a teacher oblivious to (or dismissive of) her students’ feelings, she is happy to demonstrate that power. There is a clear disconnect between the two spheres, and Rachel’s humiliation at the end of the story proves hardships of one can bleed into the other, diminishing the safe place her home provides.

The Danger of a Failure of Imagination  

Rachel is obsessed with the different versions of her she has been previously, the different selves she has accumulated over the course of her short life. She thinks through all the different aspects of her younger ages and the way she draws on them now, and she sees echoes of each year preceding her eleventh in the ways in which her emotions present themselves. Mrs. Price, on the other hand, appears wholly incapable of remembering the way she felt when she was eleven, or any other age when she was a child. Her inability to consider how her actions may affect Rachel or the other students in her class represents a failure of her imagination and self-reflection. If she were able to take into account the way that she would have felt at such a young age if she had been treated the way she treats Rachel, the incident might have been avoided. It seems likely that Mrs. Price does not ever think about her younger self, let alone being eleven, as she does not act in a way that would honor and support the child she used to be. If she were reflecting on the ages she had passed through before today, as Rachel frequently does, she might prove more willing to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of the students in her classroom. In the end, it is Rachel who demonstrates the benefit of self-reflection, and it’s made clear that Mrs. Price could learn from her, were she to stop and listen.