Though Nick insists he never meant to incite a war with his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Granger, by renaming pens “frindles”—a name that sweeps the school, city, and then entire nation—this is exactly what he ends up doing. As the battle progresses, and as Nick emerges as the leader of the winning side, the novel interrogates the power structures that make Nick's win unlikely in the first place and that, ultimately are in place to discourage him and other likeminded students from challenging the hierarchy and rules of a conventional school setting.
It's important to note that as a successful troublemaker, Nick begins the novel with a nuanced grasp of the power structure that organizes his school. He recognizes that the principal, Mrs. Chatham, is the most powerful individual at Lincoln Elementary, followed by the teachers (with experienced and notorious teachers like Mrs. Granger at the top of an associated but separate hierarchy) and finally, by the students themselves. Nick is able to pull off his pranks by manipulating this system and using it to his advantage. When he convinces Miss Deaver to turn their third grade classroom into a tropical paradise, he uses her status as an inexperienced first-year teacher to his advantage by preying on her gullibility and sense of wonder at the "creativity" of her students. Because of this, she is the one who gets in trouble with the principal for neglecting lesson plans and tracking sand all over the school, as it was her responsibility to control and teach her students. It's implied that Nick, on the other hand, gets away with his mischief—Miss Deaver should never have condoned his so-called creativity after all.
Nick is also known for his ability to distract teachers at the end of class so they won't have the time to assign homework, a method that hinges on the engrained power structures of the school. Nick plays to his teachers' sense of superiority over their students and their joy (and perhaps pride) in having a captive audience to encourage them to talk about themselves or something else important to them. In other words, Nick is able to stroke his teachers' egos and make them feel important, while actually depriving them of their control over their classrooms. Nick’s trickery almost always works, suggesting that while teachers may be sources of power and discipline, their power isn't absolute. It's not difficult for a bright, charismatic student to turn that power around and create a situation in which students can enjoy a higher status than the school ever intended them to.
When Nick starts in on the "frindle" war with Mrs. Granger, two things initially stand in his way: first, Mrs. Granger is well aware of Nick's diversion tactics, and second, she casts herself not as a symbol of power, but as a mere enforcer of a power system set out by the education system and the dictionary respectively. By positioning herself in this way, Mrs. Granger acts as Nick's adversary, but not in a direct way. She uses her status as a teacher to punish students for using "frindle," but she also insists she's not engaging in this fight to simply suppress the antics of a naughty student. Rather, she wants to make Nick understand the importance of respecting established systems of power, like the dictionary and the formal education system.
Mrs. Granger's letter to Nick—a letter she writes a few weeks into the war but doesn't send to him until "frindle" makes it into the dictionary ten years later—reveals that Mrs. Granger actually supported Nick's new word all along, but chose to continue in her role as Nick's adversary. She did this to ensure that he and other "frindle" proponents had someone to fight against, something she believes was necessary to preserve the momentum and eventually land "frindle" in the dictionary. With this, Mrs. Granger impresses upon Nick that while systems of power have their place, part of respecting those systems actually includes interrogating them, challenging them, and in some cases, changing them. This is why she writes that she asks her students to look up "frindle" on the first day of school—its inclusion in the dictionary shows that it's possible to change the rules, and that doing so isn't a bad thing at all.
Power, Hierarchy, and Rules ThemeTracker
Power, Hierarchy, and Rules Quotes in Frindle
For the rest of Nick's fourth-grade year, at least once a week, Mrs. Avery heard a loud "peeeeep" from somewhere in her classroom—sometimes it was a high-pitched chirp, and sometimes it was a very high-pitched chirp.
Don't even think about chewing a piece of gum within fifty feet of her. If you did, Mrs. Granger would see you and catch you and make you stick the gum onto a bright yellow index card. Then, she would safety-pin the card to the front of your shirt and make you wear it for the rest of the school day.
Nick was an expert at asking the delaying question—also known as the teacher-stopper, or the guaranteed time-waster. At three minutes before the bell, in that split second between the end of today's class work and the announcement of tomorrow's homework, Nick could launch a question guaranteed to sidetrack the teacher long enough to delay or even wipe out the homework assignment.
"But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that's what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book." And she pointed at the giant dictionary.
But that just made everyone want to use Nick's new word even more. Staying after school with The Lone Granger became a badge of honor. There were kids in her classroom every day after school. It went on like that for a couple of weeks.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it. It's just fun, and it really is a real word. It's not a bad word, just different. And besides, it's how words really change, isn't it? That's what you said."
"The word pen has a long, rich history. It comes from the Latin word for feather, pinna. It started to become our word pen because quills made from feathers were some of the first writing tools ever made. It's a word that comes from somewhere. It makes sense, Nicholas."
“But frindle makes just as much sense to me,” said Nick. “And after all, didn’t somebody just make up the word pinna, too?”
That got a spark from Mrs. Granger’s eyes …
A boy who was almost falling over from the weight of his backpack looked up at her and smiled. "It's not so bad. There's always a bunch of my friends there. I've written that sentence six hundred times now."
Or this bit about Nick: "Everyone agrees that Nick Allen masterminded this plot that cleverly raises issues about free speech and academic rules. He is the boy who invented the new word."
"I have always said that the dictionary is the finest tool ever made for educating young minds, and I still say that. Children need to understand that there are rules about words and language, and that those rules have a history that makes sense. And to pretend that a perfectly good English word can be replaced by a silly made-up word just for the fun of it, well, it's not something I was ready to stand by and watch without a fight."
But then Nick remembered what had happened with frindle. It stopped him cold. He was sure that if all the kids stopped buying lunch, sooner or later someone would figure out that it was all Nick Allen's idea. He would get in trouble. People would write about it in the newspaper. The principal would call his parents—anything could happen.
I see now that this is the kind of chance that a teacher hopes for and dreams about—a chance to see bright young students take an idea they have learned in a boring old classroom and put it to a real test in their own world.
So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with. And that is why I love the dictionary. It endures. It works. And as you now know, it also changes and grows.