The new flat has four rooms. They are called “railroad rooms” because they each lead into the other. There is also a tree growing in the yard. It only reaches the second story. There are four feet of a schoolyard that face onto Francie’s yard. An iron mesh fence separates the yards. Sometimes Francie plays there during recess. One mid-afternoon, Francie is in her yard when a little girl goes into the schoolyard to clap erasers together, freeing them of chalk dust. Francie watches her, with her face close to the iron mesh. Katie once told her that this is a job reserved for a teacher’s pet. Francie is unsure of what this term means, but she promises herself that, when she’s old enough to go to school, she will bark, meow, and chirp as best she can to become a “pet,” too.
The tree in the yard is the same kind of tree as the one that Katie pointed to when Francie was a struggling infant. The tree reappears throughout the novel, particularly during times when the family endures more hardship than usual. Francie’s experience with the teacher’s pet gives her a glimpse of what school life would be like. Not only would she learn new things, which she covets, but she could have the privilege of being such a loved and respected member of her classroom that her teacher would ask her for special favors.
The teacher’s pet, aware of Francie’s admiration, shows off by clapping erasers behind her back. She then offers to let Francie see them closely. Francie nods in appreciation. The girl brings the erasers close to the iron mesh. Just as Francie reaches out to touch “the vari-colored felt layers blended together by a film of powdered chalk,” the girl snatches them away and spits in Francie’s face. When Francie does not cry, the girl demands that she should and threatens to spit on Francie again. Francie turns away and flees into the cellar. She waits until the waves of hurt subside. She has experienced the first of many disillusionments and never likes blackboard erasers after that.
When the teacher’s pet spits in Francie’s face, it communicates to Francie that some privileges will be denied to her, though she will not yet learn why until she attends school herself. At the moment, the girl’s act of cruelty seems singular—merely an excuse for a mean child to show another what she cannot have. She doesn’t like blackboard erasers after this because it reminds her of a time when someone was mean for no discernible reason.
The most wonderful thing about the front room in the Nolan apartment is the piano. Piano-moving is a great project and a costly one, requiring the movers to rope and hoist it out of a window. The job costs fifteen dollars and the previous renter of the apartment did not have it, so she asked Katie if she could leave it and if the family would take care of it for her until she could send for it. Katie was pleased to make the promise, but the woman never collected the piano, which she bought cheap from a rich house. The woman never learned to play but loved the beauty of the piano, which “dresses up the whole room.”
The unexpected gift of the piano gives the children their first exposure to musical culture. Though Johnny regularly sings, it is regarded as a form of entertainment, not an art. The piano is one point over which Johnny and Katie bond, due to his love of performing music and her love of hearing it. However, for her, having the piano is a means of giving her children access to a privileged world that would normally be inaccessible to them.