Quan tries to keep it together, even though he withdraws a bit. He stays focused by controlling what he can and ignoring everything else. He cares for Dasia and Gabe, and whenever they go to the playground, Quan cleans nasty things out of the rocket ship. He reads A Series of Unfortunate Events books obsessively. The series gives him hope that like the kids in the books, he’ll be able to escape everything crashing down around him. Unsurprisingly, Dwight moves in not long after Daddy’s arrest. The only reason he hadn’t already moved in is because Daddy said he wouldn’t give Mama money if Dwight was around Quan. But now, money is tight—so Dwight offers to help with the bills, as long as he doesn’t have to pay rent.
The descriptions in this passage paint a picture of Quan as a dedicated, focused, and community-oriented young person. He wants to make his neighborhood a better place for his siblings and does so by keeping the rocket ship clean, and he wants to help his family by taking on some of the responsibility for his younger siblings. And he’s still looking for hope that things are going to improve—just like they do for the characters in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Dwight moving in complicates things, though. It makes his home life less safe and reliable, and it becomes clear that Dwight is financially manipulating Mama.
Quan overhears the conversation and, when it’s over, he heads straight for the rocket ship. He kicks a hypodermic needle out, even though a little kid could find it. Later, he picks the needle up and throws it away. Even at age 12, Quan can see that the men in Mama’s life use money to manipulate her. It bothers him, but he doesn’t know what to do—so he just “stays focused.” He stays focused when Dwight smashes things, when Mama asks Quan to get Dasia and Gabe ready for school, and when he notices the bruises under Mama’s makeup. It works—Dasia and Gabe are fine. Quan is too, since he throws himself into school and wants to go out for football in a few years. Daddy never got to use his college football scholarship since Mama got pregnant with Quan and Daddy chose to stick around.
The idea that Quan can see the things that are off in his life but can’t fix them occurs time and again throughout the novel. It drives home that Quan is observant and knows when things are going downhill, but he’s powerless to do anything. Part of Quan’s powerlessness stems from the fact that he’s still a child. He’s already mentioned that he’s not big enough to take on Dwight and protect Mama, and he’s not old enough to get a job and support the family financially. Despite being in prison, Daddy is still a major role model for Quan. When Quan thinks of football, he thinks of possibly earning his own scholarship as a way to show Daddy that sticking around after Quan’s birth was worth it.
Then, a year after Daddy’s arrest, The Math Test arrives. Quan is the only seventh grader in the Algebra 1 Challenge Math Class, which is difficult but not impossible since it’s taught by Quan’s favorite teacher, Ms. Mays. A week before the test, though, Ms. Mays goes on maternity leave. Before she leaves, she tells Quan that he’s going to succeed—and Quan vows to prove her right. He studies and earns a 98% on the test. Thrilled and proud, he dreams of showing it to Mama and mailing the test to Daddy.
Quan’s result on his math test and his respect for Ms. Mays illustrate the positive effects of supportive role models. With someone around to support and believe in him, Quan discovers that he can do great things. At this point, Mama is also still a revered figure in Quan’s life, which is why he also fantasizes of showing her the test.
Quan sprints from the bus, knowing that Mama will be home (Dwight beat her up again last night, and she doesn’t go out when that’s obvious). But when he gets inside, Mama is upset. Quan can’t figure out why, but then Mama says the school called. They informed her that Quan cheated on his algebra test; the teacher saw Quan looking at a classmate’s paper. This is technically true, but the classmate was trying to cheat off of Quan. Mama won’t let Quan defend himself and insists it’s impossible he’d score so well, given his previous grades. Worst of all, Mama promises to tell Daddy about this. In this moment, Quan realizes that staying focused doesn’t give him any control.
Quan might be able to study hard and earn good grades—but that’s not enough when it seems like everyone is against him. The teacher clearly didn’t think to investigate what he thought he saw, so Quan is now in trouble for a crime he didn’t commit. And worst of all, Mama’s choice to believe the teacher and invalidate all of Quan’s hard work shows him that he can’t count on anyone at home to believe in him. Quan seems to think that Daddy will believe Mama—and his disappointment will be the worst consequence of all.