When Ma and Kim get to their apartment, Kim translates what Mr. Al said about the block being condemned. Ma insists it means that Aunt Paula will soon move them, but Kim believes that it means that Mr. N. will never fix anything in the apartment. She suggests they find a new place to live, but Ma reminds her that they can barely afford their apartment as it is. Kim mentions that she believes it's not even legal for them to live in the building, which is probably why Paula makes her use a fake address for school. She suggests they run away from the factory and Aunt Paula, feeling as though she's never been more desperate to change her living situation.
Ma's insistence that Paula will move them because the block is condemned shows her leaning heavily on her cultural beliefs in order to deal with the situation in front of her. Given what the reader knows about Aunt Paula, Kim's suspicions are far more likely. The fact that Kim has these suspicions at all suggests that she's becoming more “American” in her cynicism as time goes on, as she's clearly unwilling to follow Ma in thinking the best of Aunt Paula just because she’s family.
Ma sternly tells Kim that they have to repay their debts to Aunt Paula, even if Paula is flawed. Kim asks if Paula has always been like this. Ma explains that Paula had worked while Ma finished high school, and Paula had been very angry when Ma married Pa. Ma admits that she'd been the one intended to marry Uncle Bob. The next day, Kim and Ma ask Aunt Paula about the apartment. Paula insists their housing situation is temporary and reminds them that they almost missed their deadline on the last clothing shipment. Ma promises to work harder. They pass Matt working alone at the cutting table on their way back to their station. He politely explains that Mrs. Wu is ill and he's covering her workload today. His politeness impresses Ma.
Kim's suspicions were correct: Aunt Paula is going to continue to abuse her power in order to keep Ma and Kim from doing any better in life. However, Ma's admission that she was supposed to marry Bob opens up the possibility that Paula feel like Ma has taken advantage of her in the past. This humanizes Paula a bit, and could explain how she's able to justify her poor treatment of Ma and Kim to herself.
Kim dedicates herself to learning English. She works through her dictionary and begins teaching herself to read with kids' books. By the time Kim gets her report card in February, she's not doing well, but she's passing most subjects. She forges Ma's signature and tells Ma that they only get report cards once per year. She also discovers that Annette will be attending a private school called Harrison Prep next year, and she wonders what she'll do without Annette in school.
It's important to recognize that the improvements Kim makes from the start of the novel to now are very impressive, even if she doesn't see them as such. Kim is very hard on herself and isn't yet able to see that she's already done amazing things—and she won't understand her success until she's completed much more.
In March, Kim and Ma say goodbye to Mr. Al. He gives them folding chairs and a mattress as parting gifts, and Ma gives him a wooden Chinese sword. Kim explains that it's supposed to go under his pillow to take away worries and bad dreams, but Mr. Al insists that it's a fantastic weapon. After Mr. Al leaves, Kim looks across to his building again, into the apartment of the black woman and her baby. She can't see the woman, but the baby hangs on the side of a playpen and cries. Kim wishes she could comfort him.
Now that the black woman's baby is alone and in distress, he represents Kim's feelings of loneliness and anxiety after the departure of Mr. Al. Mr. Al was one of the only true friends Ma and Kim had; his absence means that their lives will be very lonely without him to look after them.
The school bully, Luke, had begun staring at Kim in February. He stares at her for months until finally, he tries to trip her in the cafeteria. He grabs for her, but she evades his grasp. This makes him think she knows karate, so he challenges her to a fight after school. Kim and Annette are terrified. Annette insists they need to tell an adult, but Kim resists—she's more afraid of adults than she is of Luke. Annette offers to drive Kim home to avoid Luke, but Kim insists she has to fight Luke and be done with it.
Kim and Annette's terror isn't entirely unfounded given who Luke is, but it does seem overblown. This suggests that because the girls are so young, they take these things more seriously than they might need to—though when Kim insists on dealing with Luke alone, it shows another way that she feels she has to grow up and be mature in order to get by.
After school, Kim is almost nervous enough to vomit. A circle of kids forms outside the school with Kim and Luke in the center. He's twice her size. Kim begins to curse quietly in Chinese as Luke swings his book bag at Kim and kicks her. Kim swings her own bag at Luke, pummeling him with it. He doesn't fight back and she's able to kick him hard in the calf. Luke gives her a push and then saunters away. Kim has no idea what happened.
The events of the "fight" and Kim's confusion afterwards suggest that Kim and Annette seriously misunderstood Luke's intentions. In Kim's case, this can be seen as indicative of her outlook on life and other people, in which most people are out to get her and can't be trusted.
The next day, the principal, Mrs. LaGuardia, calls Kim to her office. Kim is terrified that she'll be punished for her fight with Luke, as Mrs. LaGuardia motions for Kim to sit. Kim can barely understand as Mrs. LaGuardia says that Kim's standardized test scores came back, and her math scores are exceptional, though her reading scores are still low. Kim believes she'll be suspended for the fight and for failing English. Mrs. LaGuardia asks Kim what she wants to do next year, though Kim continues to wonder how she'll tell Ma that she's been kicked out of school. Finally, Mrs. LaGuardia calls Kim "honey" and tells her to look at her. Kim is so surprised that she obeys.
Kim’s meeting with Mrs. LaGuardia again shows the consequences of believing that all adults are out to get her, or that she is supposed to constantly be ashamed of herself. To the reader, it's clear that Mrs. LaGuardia is genuinely trying to help and recognizes that Kim is capable of a lot, given her math scores. Calling Kim "honey" shows that she truly does care for Kim and her students as a whole, and plants the idea for Kim that teachers aren't all bad.
Mrs. LaGuardia assures Kim she's not in trouble and goes on to talk about how there are few public schools for gifted students in the area. She says she's worried that Kim might fall through the cracks at a normal public school, and suggests that Kim apply to a private school. Kim is surprised; she thinks Mrs. LaGuardia believes she's like Annette, with a housekeeper and wealth to afford private school. Kim tries to pretend this is true and rejects Mrs. LaGuardia's offer of names of schools. When Mrs. LaGuardia looks annoyed, Kim shamefully admits she can't pay. Mrs. LaGuardia laughs and explains that the school would likely offer scholarships. Kim suggests she might like to go to Harrison, and Mrs. LaGuardia promises to make some phone calls.
Kim later notes that it was foolish of her to think that she was actually successful in getting her teachers and peers to think that she was middle class like them; knowing this, it makes Mrs. LaGuardia's offers seem even more genuine and kind. Even as Kim attempts to reject help from teachers like this, these teachers' willingness to push through Kim's embarrassment and shame is one of the major reasons she eventually is able to escape the factory system and complete her education.
When Kim comes back from Mrs. LaGuardia's office, Luke begins challenging her to fights every day. Another girl starts standing up for Kim and Luke shifts his attention to her. They soon begin kissing after school and Kim understands that Luke didn't want to actually fight her; he'd had a crush on her.
This amusing misunderstanding reinforces just how young and immature Kim still is. Also note that the other girl is clearly not actually standing up for Kim; she's using Kim as a way to get close to Luke.
In the spring, Mrs. LaGuardia makes Ma and Kim an appointment at Harrison Prep. Ma is thrilled until she realizes the appointment is on a day that a shipment is due, so Kim decides to go alone. Harrison Prep is in a nice part of Brooklyn and Kim realizes that though she thought she was walking in a park, the "park" is actually the school grounds. She sees kids in gym classes playing a strange game while wearing "square shorts," and she considers turning back. She knows Ma wouldn't be able to afford those shorts; Ma still makes Kim's underwear. Kim as the adult narrator notes that while she was very concerned with looking as though she and Ma weren't impoverished, she fooled nobody at this meeting.
It quickly becomes obvious to Kim that this isn't an ordinary school—it clearly has a great deal of money and likely serves a very particular and probably elite population. When Kim considers leaving and thinks about her underwear specifically, it reinforces just how ashamed she is of her poverty and the ways her poverty isn't something she can hide.
Kim finds her building and the secretary asks if Ma is parking the car. When the secretary realizes that Kim came alone, she instructs Kim to wait. A few minutes later, Dr. Weston shakes Kim's hand. Dr. Weston shows Kim to her office and explains that she's going to conduct an oral test. Kim braces herself for questions like what people wear for Easter or how to properly hold a knife, but the questions deal mostly with math. After an hour, Dr. Weston asks Kim to draw a picture of anything. Kim draws a fairy-tale princess, which makes Dr. Weston laugh. She suggests that Kim tour the school and then come back.
The secretary's initial question suggests that in her mind, it's near unthinkable that a child would come alone to a meeting like this; in other words, she's not used to dealing with kids whose poverty means they have to operate alone. Kim's imagined questions betray just how uncomfortable and self-conscious she is about her poverty and her immigrant status, as the questions she thinks of are ones that would test her knowledge of U.S. culture.
The secretary shows Kim around the school, pointing out their trophy case filled with awards and school photographs. The students wear expensive blazers and all have white, straight teeth. There are only a few photos of nonwhite kids. Kim is shocked that there are more buildings than just the one, and gasps at the tennis courts and the football field. She understands that the school is special.
Though Kim notes that the school is special, it's also important that she recognizes that the school is overwhelmingly white and, judging by their blazers, wealthy. In this way, the blazers act like a similar but opposite symbol to Kim's underwear; they signal wealth, while her underwear signals poverty.