What Ally wants most in the world (alongside learning to read) is to have friends and to be liked by her classmates. Due to her dyslexia and the accompanying impulse control problems, Ally finds it difficult to follow social norms and is thought of as being stupid—which together turn her into a prime target for bullies like Shay. Over the course of Ally's year in Mr. Daniels's class, Ally's changing relationship with herself and with Shay, as well as the positive and affirming environment that Mr. Daniels strives to create in his classroom, work together to paint a nuanced picture of the roles that bullying and social hierarchy play in a school setting. Ultimately, Fish in a Tree proposes that the power one can gain through bullying is intoxicating, but is unfulfilling and unsustainable in the long run—especially in an environment where bullying is made difficult or impossible.
The classroom environment that Ally introduces the reader to first is one in which Shay and her band of bullies rule. During Mrs. Hall's baby shower, Shay and her loyal follower, Jessica, lead the charge to tease Ally about the card she gives Mrs. Hall (a sympathy card with beautiful flowers on the front, which Ally couldn't read and therefore didn't know was a sympathy card) with little pushback from the adults in the room. This event does several things. First, it shows the social consequences of Ally's dyslexia: her inability to read means that she's unwittingly unable to behave appropriately at the party, even though her intentions aren't malicious. Then, it shows how her inability to follow those social scripts turns her into an easy target for bullies, as the teachers are just as shocked as the students about the card and therefore don't shut down Shay's snide comments like they might have otherwise. For Shay, bullying Ally in this situation also helps her own social status. She's able to maintain the status as the queen bee of the class while also making it obvious to everyone else how unpopular Ally is by drawing unnecessary attention to her inappropriate card.
Even though Shay bullies Ally mercilessly throughout the novel, there are times when Ally admits that in some ways, she admires Shay. Shay is smart, wealthy, and has a number of friends, which Ally knows because Shay and her cohort all wear friendship bracelets that Shay made. Ally's desperate desire to be accepted and to be a part of something means that it's not hard for Shay to draw Ally into bullying others on occasion. One day at lunch, Shay invites Ally to sit at her lunch table with the express intent of roping Ally into making fun of Albert. Ally goes along with this to impress Shay, even though she knows that doing so is wrong and mean. Ally's decision to bully Albert to impress Shay speaks to the power and draw of social status and currency for someone who has none. However, Ally regrets this choice immediately and apologizes to Albert the next day, a decision that points to the novel's ultimate suggestion that popularity and power like Shay holds aren't actually worth having in the first place.
With Mr. Daniels's arrival to take Mrs. Hall's place the Monday after the baby shower, the classroom environment begins to change in such a way as to make behavior like Shay's much more difficult to pull off. Mr. Daniels makes a point to reprimand her for her rude behavior every time, while also refusing to speak poorly or negatively about students like Oliver, Ally, and Albert who often find themselves the targets of her bullying. He also talks up all his students and praises them for their kindness and strengths, habits that eventually begin to change the social structure of his classroom. This is directly responsible for cooling the animosity and cutthroat hierarchy among his students, which in turn allows Ally to make friends with Keisha and Albert and, eventually, start to humanize Shay.
Because of their friendship and the environment of Mr. Daniels's classroom, Albert, Ally, and Keisha are better equipped and feel more confident standing up to Shay themselves. This suggests that when teachers model kindness and refuse to tolerate bullying, it in turn teaches their students to do the same. Then, possibly even more importantly, Albert's relationships with Ally and Keisha gives him the strength and a reason to stand up to the bullies that beat him up daily after school. He refuses to fight back for much of the novel, citing his pacifist beliefs, but his love for his friends means that when the bullies try to hurt Ally and Keisha, he finds himself unable to not stand up for them. This shows that what Mr. Daniels teaches his students in a school setting isn't something unique to school—it's possible and necessary to take those lessons about the power of kindness and friendship into the real world, stand up to bullies, and defend oneself and one's friends.
The final lesson for Ally, as well as Shay's downfall, comes when Ally learns that Shay doesn't give out friendship bracelets: she sells them. This makes it clear to Ally that Shay's "friendships" are fake and constructed to boost Shay's popularity—in other words, the friendships are intended to give Shay followers, not true and supportive friends. However, after Shay loses the election for class president, Ally overhears Shay's mom berating her for failing. This suggests that Shay's behavior doesn't take place in a vacuum; rather, she's behaving exactly as her parents have taught her to by prioritizing winning and superiority over kindness and friendship. Though Shay doesn't undergo a substantial change in outlook by the end of the novel, by humanizing her like this, Fish in a Tree offers the possibility for Shay to go on to develop a healthier outlook on social interactions thanks to teachers like Mr. Daniels—while also illustrating, through her lack of friends and diminished vitriol at the end of the novel, that bullies can be stopped when teachers interrupt the classroom hierarchy by providing other students with the tools and the support to refuse to play the bullies’ games.
Bullying, Friendship, and Social Status ThemeTracker
Bullying, Friendship, and Social Status Quotes in Fish in a Tree
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I felt terrible when the neighbor's dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn't know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
“Well,” the guy says, “if you know anything about coins, you know that a coin with a flaw in it is far more valuable than a regular coin.”
Something isn't right with it and it's worth more?
As I walk back to my seat, I think of how when Dad left, he said that when we look at the steel pennies, we need to remember that we are unique, too. And also, that things will go back to normal for us—that he'll be home before we know it.
Mr. Daniels gives Oliver a thumbs-up, and I think how cool it is that they have the ear-pulling signal. That way he doesn't always have to tell Oliver that he's doing something wrong in front of everyone. I know what that feels like and I'm happy that Mr. Daniels cares so much. Most teachers seem to like their students to be all the same—perfect and quiet. Mr. Daniels actually seems to like that we're different.
Besides that, Shay, Jessica, and some other girls all have these woven friendship bracelets. And I have never had the kind of friends who have matching bracelets, but I have always wanted them. It's like the bracelet tells the world that the person wearing it has someone who cares about them.
I'm not perfect, but at least I'm not mean.
And then my heart sinks, because I realize that I just was.
I guess I did it because I was lonely. Now I know that there are worse things than being lonely.
People act like the words “slow reader” tell them everything that's inside. Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There's a lot of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There's got to be more to me than a kid who can't read well.
“I laugh. “Uh, no, thanks. I'd rather wear handcuffs.”
I can't believe Shay charges her friends for something that's supposed to stand for loyalty and friendship. And I can't believe they paid.
It comes from a place so deep inside, it's like it's coming out of the ground. “I just... I just want to fit in for once. I mean, I really do. Just to be the same as everyone else.”
“You are smart, Ally. And you are going to learn to read.”
A chill runs through my whole body. I don't have any choice but to believe him, because I can't go another day thinking things will be like this forever.
“People ask what you want to be when you grow up. I know what kind of grown-up I want to be. But I don't know who I am now.” Albert stretches his legs out. “There are always people ready to tell you who you are, like a nerd or a jerk or a wimp.”
Shay sounds like someone completely different. The Shay I know, always so quick to pick a fight, now has a voice that sounds like a kindergartener.
“Sorry, Mama.” She brushes a tear from her cheek.
As I draw, I think about my sketchbook and how I love it but don't draw in it as much anymore. It used to be the only thing that made me happy. Now I have other things, too.
And looking around the room, I remember thinking that my reading differences were like dragging a concrete block around every day, and how I felt sorry for myself. Now I realize that everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.
I feel like I'm going to cry. Thinking how Albert has come to school every day with those bruises for all this time. We always asked him what it would take for him to fight back. Turns out it was protecting us.