Miss Tarango says she needs someone brave who’s capable of “tackling the power of language.” A few boys raise their hands, but Miss Tarango says she should explain the task further. She puts her chair on the platform at the front of the room and says the volunteer must stay in the chair while she, using only the power of language, tries to get him off. She can’t do anything to the volunteer—but she guarantees that before she circles the chair three times, the volunteer will have gotten up. The class is disbelieving, but Barry volunteers. Nobody tries to argue.
Readers can infer that Miss Tarango is purposefully trying to get Barry to volunteer; this whole demonstration seems designed to take him down a peg. It’s possible to see that Barry volunteers because he believes that physical violence is more powerful than language—so in his mind, he’s obviously going to emerge victorious if all Miss Tarango has at her disposal are words.
Barry saunters to the front, where Miss Tarango asks very seriously if he suffers from a weak heart or dizzy spells. He insists she can’t scare him off, but she says she’s just being thorough—and if he doesn’t want to do this, nobody will think any less of him. Ishmael is certain Miss Tarango won’t actually hurt Barry—right? Barry sits down and Miss Tarango says he has to face front while she circles the chair three times. He loses if he looks behind him. Barry nods, but he looks slightly less arrogant. Miss Tarango shows him where her circles begin—and says if he wins, he’ll get the entire week off. She must be mad; only the principal, Brother Jerome, can promise something like that.
What Miss Tarango proposes to Barry is deceptively simple: she’s going to circle him three times, and then he’ll get the week off. But note that Miss Tarango is being purposefully vague—she doesn’t, for instance, say when she’s going to finish her circle, and she may be banking on not being able to (or choosing not to) finish. The fact that even Ishmael is confused and concerned shows that Ishmael is, like Barry, not yet convinced of language’s power. He’s doubting that she’ll win this one, because he doesn’t value language yet.
When Barry says he’s ready, Miss Tarango walks slowly around Barry. She finishes the first circle, then the second. Barry looks like he’s glued to his chair, and Ishmael is certain Miss Tarango is going to fail. But then, she completes the third half-circle and, from behind Barry, picks up a marker to write on the whiteboard. She reminds Barry to face forward as she writes something. The class frowns at her; she must be bluffing. She raises her hand above Barry’s head, turns her wrist to look at her watch, and smiles—just as the bell signaling lunch goes off.
Again, Miss Tarango was purposefully very vague when she introduced this exercise. Recall that she said they had time for one more thing before lunch, which reveals that she knew she was going to run out of time. This exercise establishes Miss Tarango as someone who’s capable of standing up to Barry. And the fact that she does so using language shows that language can indeed prevail over Barry’s violence.
Miss Tarango says they’re out of time. Barry objects—is he really supposed to sit in the chair all night? Miss Tarango says that’s exactly what he agreed to. He can look at the board now if he wants. Barry turns around and reads: “Before I walk around the chair three times, you will be off.” Miss Tarango underlines the word “before,” and she notes that she didn’t say when she’d complete her third circle. She’ll complete it someday—but Barry has to stay in the chair until she does. To the class, Miss Tarango says that language is powerful: a word like “before” can do harm if you don’t respect it. She asks everyone to clap for Barry.
In this passage, Miss Tarango shares with her students exactly how being vague helped her. She essentially encourages them to carefully consider their words, and to figure out how to use language to their advantage—with a firm grasp of how to use language, they can even triumph over bullies like Barry. And by making Barry seem like a hero who tried his best, Miss Tarango also gives herself plausible deniability: she makes it seem like she’s not just trying to humiliate Barry, when really, that’s exactly what she set out to do.
This earns Miss Tarango the love and respect of everyone in the class, aside from Barry. After this, Ishmael realizes that she’s going to be the best teacher he’s ever had.
For Ishmael, anyone who can get the better of Barry is a hero in his eyes. Idolizing Miss Tarango also suggests that Ishmael will go out of his way to learn from her as the school year progresses.