Francie is out walking one Saturday and ends up in an unfamiliar part of Brooklyn. There are no tenements or shabby stores but old houses that have been around since Washington moved his troops across Long Island. She comes upon “a little old school” whose “old bricks glowed garnet in the late afternoon sun.” There is no fence around the school and the yard across from it seems like “open country.” Francie’s heart turns over and she knows that she wants to go to this school, but she wonders how. Katie will not move just so that she can attend school.
Francie’s discovery of this school is not without its class connotations. She doesn’t want to go to the school because she imagines that the quality of people will be better—she isn’t a snob—but, she is aware of the fact that she will be better treated in a school that exists in a more established community. Her romantic perception of the school doesn’t exactly override her good sense: she knows that her family can’t afford to move.
Francie waits up that night waiting for Johnny to arrive home. When he does, she whispers into his ear about the school and he says that they will see about it. He tells Francie that they cannot move, but there might be another way. He wakes up the next day around noon and the family sits for lunch. As Katie pours the coffee, Johnny announces that he and Francie will go for a walk a little later. By 4:00 PM, Johnny and Francie set out. On the way, they encounter a prostitute who offers Johnny her companionship and he politely refuses. When Francie asks him if she was “a bad lady,” Johnny explains that she is not, only unlucky.
Francie appeals to her father because she rightfully understands that he will find a way for her to get into the school. His expression of sympathy for the prostitute and his explanation of her situation to Francie contrasts with Katie’s perception, which Francie has internalized, that such women are inherently “bad.” Johnny reveals a more sympathetic and complex view of humanity based on his understanding of his own frailties and vulnerability.
Johnny and Francie reach the school. He tells Francie that they will find a house and use that house’s address to write a letter to Francie’s current principal, saying that she is moving into the house. They find a one-story white house with white chrysanthemums growing in the yard. He explains that what they are doing is wrong, but is a wrong “to gain a greater good.” He says that Francie must make up for the wrong by being twice as good. This means that she can never be bad in school, absent, or late. He then shows her a shortcut to the school through a park.
It is illegal in the U.S. to fake one’s address to attend a school in another district. However, the action is morally just because Francie deserves to be in a better school. The white house and white flowers symbolize the purity of their intentions. In Japanese culture, white chrysanthemums are also symbols of death and are displayed at funerals. Smith may be subtly foreshadowing Johnny’s death.
The different feeling in the new school largely comes from the janitor, Mr. Jenson. He occupies the furnace room and is a surrogate father to all of the children. He also has a friendship with the principal. The rumor is that Mr. Jenson went to college and knows more than the principal. He took the janitorial job because it pays more than being a schoolteacher. When a boy is bad, he’s sent to Mr. Jenson for a talking to. Mr. Jenson never scolds but lectures about good citizenship and doing one’s best for the common good. At graduation, the children always ask him to sign their autograph books. His signature is always the finest. In fact, Mr. Jenson’s handwriting is so wonderful that he writes out all of the diplomas.
Mr. Jenson is an example of the complexity of class. He purportedly has the education to be far more than a janitor but chooses the humbler job out of economic necessity. He is a man who embraces most American values, except that which connects personal success to financial wealth. The children admire him for being kinder and gentler than many of the teachers and for being more accessible.
Mr. Morton and Miss Bernstone teach at Francie’s new school, too. During their lessons, Mr. Jenson often squeezes himself into one of the back seats and then invites them down to the furnace room afterwards for coffee. Francie is happy in her new school. Each day that she passes the white house, she stares at it in gratitude. She picks up debris around the house and ensures that their garbage bag is hung on the fence. The people who live in the house regard her as “a quiet child who [has] a queer complex about tidiness.”
Mr. Jenson’s presence in Mr. Morton and Miss Bernstone’s class demonstrates his appreciation for the arts, despite his being a manual worker. Again, this character shows that class doesn’t always determine one’s tastes or interests. The white house is a symbol of opportunity. Francie helps to maintain the house to express her gratitude for opportunity.
Francie walks forty-eight blocks each day to get to school, but she loves the walk. She leaves earlier than Neeley and comes back later. Katie refuses to let her carry a lunch, worried that she’ll be “weaned away from her home and family.” Thus, Francie must report home for a sandwich, which she eats on the way back to school.
Katie’s sense of identity depends very much on her husband and children needing her. She worries, too, that Francie’s presence in another, more privileged neighborhood will distance her from where she actually comes from.