Francie expects great things from school, but she’s disappointed when she has to share a seat and a desk with another girl. She’s in school for half a day before she realizes that she’ll never be the teacher’s pet. That honor will go to one of the daughters of prosperous shopkeepers who sit in the front row. The teacher, Miss Briggs, is “gentle” when she speaks to them and “snarling” when speaking to “the great crowd of unwashed.”
It’s ironic that Francie wishes to be the teacher’s pet, given her unpleasant experience with a little girl who inhabited that role. Now, she realizes that what separated her from the little girl who once spat upon her is class difference. Francie will never have the teacher’s favor because she is poor and can’t afford to buy her gifts.
Francie, thus, quickly learns about “the class system of a great Democracy.” It would seem that all of the children would stick together to protect themselves against Miss Briggs’s hatred, but this is not so. Instead, they ape the teacher’s “snarling manner” when they address each other. There is always one child who is singled out for abuse. After Miss Briggs finishes with the child, the other poor children turn on him, too, repeating the teacher’s torments. Unsurprisingly, they fawn upon those who get to sit in the front row. It seems that they imagine themselves nearer to the throne that way.
Like the nurse at the free clinic who sides with the doctor over sympathizing with Francie, the poor students turn on each other to find favor with their instructor and with the middle-class students whom they would like to be more like. The “throne” is really no more than the position of being respected. The image of Miss Briggs’s “snarling manner” indicates someone who doesn’t like children unless they can serve her interest; the poor ones cannot.
As for going to the restroom, the children are instructed to go before they leave home in the morning and then wait to go again at the lunch hour. However, the press of the crowd usually prevents a child from using the toilet. Francie notices that the children who sit in the front row are allowed to leave at any time.
Not only does Miss Briggs favor the middle-class children with respect, she goes further in her mistreatment of the poor children by torturing them with bladder pain and the possible humiliation of wetting themselves in front of the other students.
Aunt Sissy, who has not seen her niece and nephew in a long time and is lonesome for them, fixes the problem for Francie. Sissy sees them on a November day shortly after she is laid off. She first sees Neeley, who has his cap snatched off and trampled by a bigger boy. Neeley then goes to do the same to a smaller boy before Sissy grabs his arm. Neeley screams, twists loose, and runs away. When Sissy sees Francie, they embrace in the street. Sissy notices that Francie is trembling and cold. Francie is ashamed and whispers in her aunt’s ear that she wet herself. Sissy immediately puts her at ease, saying it could happen to anyone. Francie explains that the teacher will not allow her to leave the room. Sissy promises that she will make it so that Francie can leave anytime she needs to.
Neeley’s bullying behavior toward the smaller boy, which results only from his having been bullied, is an indication of how easily influenced he is and how quickly he adapts to what others are doing. Sissy grabs his arm, obviously, out of disapproval of his actions. On the other hand, she demonstrates sympathy toward Francie, who is being dealt with unfairly by her teacher. In her simplicity, Sissy has a strong sense of fairness and is sensitive to those who are treated poorly.
The next morning, ten minutes before class starts, Sissy is confronting Miss Briggs. She presents herself as Francie’s mother and says that Francie has kidney trouble and could die if she isn’t allowed to use the restroom. She then points to a cop in the street and identifies him as her husband. She says that if Miss Briggs doesn’t let Francie use the restroom when she needs to, she’ll have the cop “beat the hell” out of Miss Briggs. Neither Francie nor Katie ever learn about Sissy’s school visit. Afterwards, Miss Briggs lets Francie use the restroom and no longer nags the child. She still doesn’t believe what Sissy said, but she doesn’t want to take any chances either. Miss Briggs doesn’t like children, but she is “no fiend” either. She doesn’t want a child to drop dead before her.
Sissy’s lies are designed to make Miss Briggs feel guilty or somehow personally threatened by the consequences of not allowing Francie to go to the bathroom. Sissy knows that Miss Briggs doesn’t care about Francie because she’s poor and can’t afford to buy her gifts. Briggs doesn’t want a child to “drop dead” because of how it would make her look.
A few weeks later, Sissy asks one of her co-workers in the shop to write her a note for Katie. The note asks Katie “to let bygones be bygones” and to permit her to go to the house and see the children sometime. Mary Rommely tries to intercede between her daughters, but Katie will not elaborate on the problem. Still, she admits that she misses Sissy. Katie gets news of her sister through the Rommelys’ insurance agent. Katie tells the agent that, the next time he sees Sissy, he should tell her not to be such a stranger. He relays the message and Sissy reenters the Nolans’ lives.
Katie will not tell her mother about what drove her and Sissy apart because of what Katie perceives as the embarrassing nature of the story and also the possibility that Mary, in all of her holy purity, might be scandalized by the condoms that were in Sissy’s possession. Sissy notably doesn’t have a similar message sent to Evy, suggesting that she favors the Nolan children.