Old School

by

Tobias Wolff

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Old School: Chapter 6: The Forked Tongue Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As spring blossoms, the boys grow restless and rowdy. The masters disregard most of the boys’ antics, but three incidents go over the line. When the glee club goes to Boston to sing at an Alumni dinner, a boy named Keyes steals a bottle of champagne and gets drunk on the bus, leading to his expulsion. Then Jack Broome gets expelled for hitchhiking down to Miss Cobb’s Academy to meet a girl, where they were caught together in the boathouse.
The incidents with the two boys in the narrator’s class remind him that he is not invincible, and getting expelled from the school is a constant threat. Like the incidents with the cigarettes, the schoolboys often tempt fate by misbehaving, leading to their failure.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Education, Failure, and Growth Theme Icon
Soon after, Purcell starts to cut daily chapel, saying that he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t want to worship him anymore. By the end of April, he’s used up his cuts and begins earning demerits. The narrator grows annoyed—he views Purcell’s decision as a display of arrogance. If Purcell were expelled, he wouldn’t lose his future place at Yale. Unless a person gets kicked out for an Honor Code violation, they can still take final exams at the end of the year.
The narrator’s reaction to Purcell’s decision to cut chapel explores the complicated dynamic between the two. While Purcell frames his actions as an honorable decision, the narrator views it as an extension of his privileged identity: the fact that he can do anything he wants and it will matter little for his future.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
Another thing stokes the narrator’s frustration: the stir over Hemingway is growing feverish, and Purcell loves Hemingway’s work. But, the narrator knows that (like himself) Purcell doesn’t want to be rejected by Hemingway. Submissions are due the first Monday in May and if Purcell keeps cutting chapel, his demerits would send him home the preceding Saturday. He would lose his chance for an audience, but he wouldn’t have to face losing a competition.
The narrator reiterates how much the competitions are a point of pride for the boys, and that not winning them is a severe blow to the ego. While they are excited at the prospect of being chosen for such an honor, the narrator posits that Purcell might worry about not being chosen even more, and therefore his decision to be expelled from the school would remove that chance of humiliation.
Themes
Competition, Masculinity, and Pride Theme Icon
The narrator acknowledges that he may be looking for bad motives in Purcell because he himself is so duplicitous. He was recently awarded a full scholarship to Columbia University, and an essay of his won the Cassidy English Prize, which afforded him five weeks at a summer program in Oxford, all expenses paid. His classmates also like him. But he recognizes that he is constantly “performing” and trying to act like someone he isn’t, and now he feels like stranger even to those people he calls friends.
Here the narrator fully reveals the cost of hiding his identity. Rather than helping him feel a greater sense of belonging, this constant “performing” has left him feeling as though he doesn’t actually have strong bonds with his friends. In this way, the narrator implies that obscuring his identity in order to belong has actually backfired and made him more of an outsider.
Themes
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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The narrator realizes that all of his stories had been attempts to make him seem like someone he isn’t. He thinks about what to write for the competition—how to write something that gets at his core, as Hemingway did. Everyone else is writing up a storm, while he feels completely blocked.
The narrator ties together identity, honesty, and writing, acknowledging that there is power in writing truthfully about one’s own personal experience.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
The Power of Literature Theme Icon
The final editorial meeting for the Troubadour is the Sunday night before the stories are due. The narrator tries to schedule the meeting for Friday, but that Friday Miss Cobb’s graduating class is joining the boys for a Farewell Assembly, a dance notorious for its promiscuity. Rain wrote to the narrator to ask him to the dance. Additionally, if Purcell continues to skip chapel he will be kicked out on Saturday, and the narrator won’t have any help in sorting through the Troubadour submissions.
Three seemingly unrelated events demonstrate just how much competitions dominate the boys’ lives at the school: the literary contest, the battle over girls at the dance, and the ongoing competition of who will be published in the Troubadour all consume the narrator’s thoughts.
Themes
Competition, Masculinity, and Pride Theme Icon
On Friday, Big Jeff announces that if Purcell got kicked out, he would leave too. This doesn’t make much sense to the narrator, and Purcell gets angry at his cousin. The boys then start to prepare for the dance, but the narrator refuses to go until he has a good beginning to his story. The narrator daydreams that Hemingway chooses his story and hires him to work on his boat. He helps a friend of Hemingway’s catch a fish, and Hemingway praises him for it.
The narrator’s dream emphasizes how much winning the literary competition would mean to him. Not only would it be a chance to meet Hemingway, but it would mean that Hemingway recognizes the narrator’s talent over all of his classmates.
Themes
Competition, Masculinity, and Pride Theme Icon
At midnight, Bill White returns from the library. The narrator hasn’t written a word. Bill asks how it’s going in a way that surprises the narrator—they have spent four years together and have never fought, but they aren’t close friends. Now, Bill seems to ask about him with genuine interest. The narrator is tempted to tell him that he hasn’t written anything, but he worries that this will lead him to tell Bill more about his life, so he instead says it’s going fine.
Again, the narrator reiterates how hiding his identity from his closest classmates has actually hindered him from belonging. Even though he and Bill have lived together for years and have never fought, the narrator feels that he and Bill aren’t good friends because of their inability to connect on a deeper level.
Themes
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
Purcell attends chapel on Saturday afternoon. The narrator surmises that he didn’t want Big Jeff to leave the school as well, which would embarrass him. At the Troubadour editorial meeting, the board makes their decisions about which stories will go into the final publication of the year. George is particularly on edge, especially when they evaluate the last story. The story isn’t great, but the author has been trying to publish a story for years and has not been successful.
Purcell’s decision to attend chapel illustrates his frustration with Big Jeff and hints at his feeling of being constantly competitive with his cousin. George’s edginess at the final story hints at his frustration with the competitions as well, and how they pit the students against each other.
Themes
Competition, Masculinity, and Pride Theme Icon
George says they should just publish the boy’s story, arguing that it’s not like any of their stories were particularly groundbreaking. The rest of the boys are annoyed at this because they take their jobs very seriously and value their work. The narrator agrees to run it, and everyone disperses quickly. The narrator then looks through some old literary reviews on the bookshelves. He observes that all the stories seemed the same—designed to show what a superior person the writer is.
George’s argument hurts the other boys’ pride not only because they value their work on Troubadour, but also because being published in it is a way of proving themselves superior, and publishing something of lesser quality cheapens the others’ accomplishments. George adds to this insult by implying that their stories aren’t much better than the one they’re evaluating.
Themes
Competition, Masculinity, and Pride Theme Icon
The narrator then reads a story from an old Miss Cobb’s review called “Summer Dance,” by Susan Friedman. The main character of the story, Ruth Levine, is smoking at a bus stop in Columbus after a typing class at the Y. She then takes the bus to her mother’s dingy apartment, where her mom is lying down with a headache. She lies to her mother that she needs more typing supplies so that she can get money for cigarettes.
Even before the narrator reveals how true the story feels to him, the parallels between him and the main character of the story are evident. From the outset, her smoking habit relates to the narrator particularly because she uses it as a tool for deception, just as the narrator does. She also comes from a less wealthy background, as demonstrated by the bus and the apartment.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
The Power of Literature Theme Icon
Ruth then discovers that she has two phone messages: one from an old friend she grew up with, whose message she won’t return, and the other from a girl named Caroline, a classmate at her boarding school, which Ruth attends on scholarship. She calls Caroline back, and Caroline asks her to go to a dance at her country club. Ruth agrees, and Caroline says that she has to give Ruth’s name as something other than Levine—club rules. Ruth says to call her Ruth Windsor.
The parallels between Ruth and the narrator continue. This passage implies that both Ruth and the narrator come from middle-class Jewish backgrounds. And just like the narrator, Ruth lies about her identity in order to fit in better with her wealthy friends, as the story implies here that Jews aren’t allowed in Caroline’s country club and requires her to provide a different last name.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
Ruth leaves that night, thrilled to escape her apartment. She meets up with Caroline and two boys—Colson and Gary. Caroline likes Colson, but Ruth can tell he’s interested in her, not Caroline. Still, Caroline has taken Ruth to the movies and the pool and the club, and she knows that if she betrays Caroline by going out Colson, Ruth will no longer have these privileges and Caroline will also reveal that Ruth is at the club under false pretenses. So, Ruth shifts her attention to Gary, and Colson resumes his banter with Caroline. The story concludes with Ruth thinking that everything’s okay.
The final section of the story adds to the connections between Ruth and the narrator, illustrating how Ruth easily gives up a boy she likes in order to remain associated with Caroline, and by extension, the privileged life she leads. The narrator also lies and often puts his own feelings aside in order to gain a sense of belonging in the privileged world of his elite prep school.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
The narrator is stunned: he feels as though he is reading a story about himself. The typing class, the bus, and the apartment are all very familiar to him. And the calculations about who to hang out with, manipulating his parents, the desperation to flee his home, the attraction to privilege, the masking of his own identity and desires in order to fit in: every moment of it feels true to him.
The profound impact that the story has on the narrator reinforces how powerful writing can be. It helps the narrator admit and work through the parts of his identity that he feels mark him as an outsider or show his duplicity.
Themes
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon
The Power of Literature Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The narrator starts copying out the story, just as he had with Hemingway’s works. He feels liberated in writing something so true to his own experience. He changes Ruth’s first name to his, but keeps the last name Levine. He changes the city to Seattle, Caroline to James, and makes other small adjustments. But he feels that the words are his own. He finishes the story just before the bell rings for breakfast. He knows anyone who reads the story would know exactly who he is.
While the narrator thinks that publishing the story will help his friends understand him more fully, the irony is that he still isn’t being honest or open about himself. Even though he identifies with the story, these aren’t his words or experiences, demonstrating how even in trying to be more honest he is still deceitful.
Themes
Honesty and Honor Theme Icon
Identity and Belonging Theme Icon