The Wednesday Wars

by

Gary Schmidt

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The Wednesday Wars: March Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Hoodhood family begins watching the news together nightly. It gets grimmer and grimmer; soldiers are now using stethoscopes and divining rods to find Vietcong tunnels filled with explosives. Despite this, the White House continues to insist that the American effort is going well, and the enemy is running out of steam. Holling's dad just shakes his head, while Heather is silent. Holling keeps an eye out for news of Lieutenant Baker, which he believes the entire town is doing as well.
Now that Holling is watching the news of his own volition, it's evidence that he believes he now has real and personal reasons to care about the war. This suggests that he's beginning to truly care about Mrs. Baker and her wellbeing, just as she's caring for Holling more and more in return. Holling also recognizes that there's a disconnect between what he sees and what the White House says—evidence he's thinking critically.
Themes
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Mrs. Baker continues to conduct class with a business-as-usual attitude, and the class thrives. Mai Thi even becomes the best at diagramming sentences. One Wednesday afternoon, while Holling reads Julius Caesar under the bulging ceiling tiles, Mr. Vendleri comes in with eight new tiles and a mallet. He tells Mrs. Baker that rats can get huge in five months. Carefully, Mr. Vendleri taps the bulging tile with his mallet, and then asks a terrified Holling to hold the garbage can underneath. When Mr. Vendleri tips the tile, "Shredded Everything" pours out. Most of it misses the can and falls on Holling. Mrs. Baker insists that Mr. Vendleri catch the garbage some other way, so he fetches a tarp, gives Holling the mallet, and tells him to swing at the rats as necessary.
By offering this observation about Mai Thi, Holling shows the reader that he's now thinking more about the people around him. Mr. Vendleri's fear of the rats reinforces his humanity, as it shows that he has fears just like everyone else, even if he is an adult authority figure in Holling's eyes. The fact that Holling doesn't protest much being asked to help Mr. Vendleri shows that he's growing up and becoming more confident, even if he is still terrified.
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Sycorax and Caliban don't show up, and Mr. Vendleri successfully replaces all the ceiling tiles. Holling, still terrified, wants to read sitting on his desk, and he wonders if Mrs. Baker secretly wants to be sitting on her desk too. He struggles to focus on the play and instead keeps getting distracted by Mrs. Baker's "terrible cold," which persists for more than a week. It makes her voice soggy when she announces on Friday that members of the school board will observe her classroom later that week.
Again, wondering if Mrs. Baker is scared of the rats as well shows that Holling is thinking more empathetically about his teacher and the adults around him, though his interpretation of Mrs. Baker's "terrible cold" shows he still has a ways to go: it's easy to read her cold as a cover-up for the grief and fear she surely feels now that her husband is lost in Vietnam.
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Holling addresses the reader and says it's important to keep in mind the line "beware the ides of March," which is what a soothsayer says in order to tell Caesar that bad things will happen in the play. Mrs. Baker says that the observation will take place in a week—on the Ides of March.
By bringing in the Ides of March (March 15), Holling shows that he's incorporating what he learns from Shakespeare into his understanding of the world—which is especially uncanny here, given that what's coming is possibly bad.
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Things get weirder from there: Coach Quatrini announces he's going to form a cross-country team now so that he can have students ready to compete in September. He makes Holling's class run two miles at "race pace," which is unspeakably fast, and he still yells at the students to run faster. It jumps into Holling's head that the official tryouts will certainly be on the Ides of March, and lo and behold, Coach Quatrini says that tryouts will be in a week. Holling wonders if he's a soothsayer.
Though Holling doesn't give a day of the week for the Ides of March, he later notes that it's a Friday—a perfectly logical day to schedule things like tryouts. When he wonders if he's a soothsayer, it indicates that Holling still has an overblown sense of his own importance, though it's played more for humor here.
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Holling runs over the weekend to stay out of the house, as his dad is extremely mad at Heather. His dad wanted to hire an afternoon and weekend receptionist for cheap, so he decided to hire his daughter. She refused, stating that she already had a job working on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign. She insists that he will end discrimination and turn the country around, and her dad grows louder and more indignant. He says that she should just go work for Martin Luther King, who is, according to him, a Communist. The fight escalates, and though Holling stays quiet, he's glad that Bobby Kennedy is running for president, since he wonders if maybe he'll tell the truth about the war. Holling also wonders if he somehow made his dad mad by secretly being happy Bobby Kennedy is running.
Bobby Kennedy was a Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, which means that conservatives like Holling's dad thought little of him and instead supported Richard Nixon. It's worth noting that Holling's dad's derision about all of this is rooted partially in a fear of change; the way he conducts his family life suggests he'd like to maintain the idyllic, conservative image of the perfect family popular in the 1950s. By this time, that was changing as a result of the youth riots, social justice movements, and opposition to the war.
Themes
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Holling struggles through Coach Quatrini's exercises the next few days, and on Wednesday, he tells Mrs. Baker that it'll kill him—especially since tryouts are on the Ides of March. Mrs. Baker insists it's because he runs straight upright and clenches his hands. She pulls out a pair of white sneakers, and when Holling insists he's not worried that Mrs. Baker might be faster than he is, she cautions him to not underestimate people and leads him to the track. She instructs him on how to improve his running form. Even though Holling thinks he looks stupid, the next day, he runs faster than Danny and a bunch of eighth graders.
The fact that Mrs. Baker can coach Holling effectively is a clear indicator that she does indeed know something about running. When Holling is more concerned with looking stupid than with running fast, it shows that he's still concerned with what people think about him—but they likely only focus on his speed, not what he looks like while he runs.
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That afternoon, Holling thanks Mrs. Baker for helping him with his running and offers her some advice in return for her observation the next day. She asks if he's ever taught seventh grade, and he insists she's never been a track runner and still helped. He suggests she not cross her arms, roll her eyes, or make teacher jokes. He also suggests she praise students when they do something well. She agrees to consider his advice. As Holling turns to leave, she hands him a wooden box. Inside is a silver medal with "XVIth Olympiad—Melbourne—1956" on it. Mrs. Baker explains that it was for the 4x100 meter relay. When Holling looks surprised, she asks if he really thought she'd been a teacher all her life. Holling realizes he did indeed think that.
Again, Holling reveals that he has no idea that Mrs. Baker had a life before being a teacher, which shows that he didn't think of her as a full human. When she offers him clear proof that she had a life and a passion before teaching, it forces him to think critically about her and amend his previous understanding of her—which is exactly what she's asked him to do with Shakespeare's plays over the course of this year.
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On Friday, the Ides of March, the sky is greenish and cloudy. During a break in class, Holling acts out the scene in which Julius Caesar gets stabbed, complete with sound effects. Mrs. Baker angrily insists that Shakespeare isn't just about stabbings and asks for the book. As Holling is handing Mrs. Baker the book, the door opens, and Mr. Guareschi and three school board members walk in. One of them is Mrs. Sidman.
The greenish sky suggests the possibility that the day will be just as ominous as Holling predicted—it's another common trope and signifier of bad things to come. Mrs. Sidman's return in this position of power suggest that she's undergone her own transformation while away.
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One school board member asks Mrs. Baker what book she's giving Holling, and is relieved to learn that the expensive-looking volume is Mrs. Baker's personal copy. He suggests that Holling might like to memorize some passages, and seems surprised that Holling has already memorized some and performed in a play. The board member even pats Holling's head. When the board member asks to hear Holling recite some Shakespeare, Mrs. Baker fixes Holling with a look, and Holling can't tell if it's a death threat look or if he's just getting used to her expressions. He recites a passage from Julius Caesar, and everyone claps. Mrs. Baker quietly praises Holling.
When Holling can't even interpret Mrs. Baker's expression, it shows that he is beginning to think of her as a real person and reevaluate her "assassination attempt" face. Her evaluation here depends on Holling successfully doing what he's been asked to do: recite Shakespeare by memory. The fact that Holling is able to do this is a testament to Mrs. Baker's abilities as a teacher.
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Mrs. Baker puts a Shakespearean curse on the board for the class to diagram. She follows all of Holling's suggestions, and even lets him act out the stabbing scene from Julius Caesar near the end of the hour. At the most dramatic part, Sycorax and Caliban drop out of the ceiling tiles and right onto Mrs. Sidman's lap. Everyone, including the school board, clamber onto desks—except for Mrs. Sidman and Mai Thi, who takes off a shoe and brandishes it at the rats. Mrs. Sidman grabs the rats by the scruff of their necks. The rats' screams attract Mr. Vendleri, who leads her to the basement to put the rats in a cage. Holling wishes everyone could've seen how heroic Mrs. Sidman looked.
When Mrs. Baker even takes Holling's advice into question, it illustrates that teaching and learning go both ways, and that Mrs. Baker is willing to acknowledge her students’ humanity. This sets her apart from many other adults in the novel, as most of them, like Holling's dad, don't seem to think of children as real people with thoughts, feelings, or emotions.
Themes
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By the time cross-country tryouts roll around that afternoon, the entire school has heard about Sycorax and Caliban. Instead of canceling tryouts, Coach Quatrini insists that the students' fear of the rats will be excellent motivation to run fast. He lays out the course around the school and past the parking lot where the rats are in a cage, waiting for the exterminator. He blows his whistle, and everyone takes off. Holling feels like he's drowning but remembers his form. He feels much better when he sees Meryl Lee waving a dried rose at him. Holling passes students on his fourth lap, and as he runs around the parking lot, he sees the exterminator preparing to take the rats.
Just as Mrs. Baker took Holling’s advice during her observation, Holling now takes all of Mrs. Baker’s running advice and uses it to do very well during the tryouts. The fact that Meryl Lee is here to watch tells Holling that she's a loyal friend who can provide him with more support and encouragement than his family can.
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After Holling passes the parking lot, he hears a scream and the sound of the cage dropping. He looks back and sees Sycorax and Caliban, murder in their eyes, racing towards him. Holling runs faster as the rats pursue him, racing into the tennis courts and slamming the gate shut behind him. The rats climb the fence, but Holling is already out the other side by the time they scale the fence. They continue to pursue Holling. Danny grabs Holling as he runs past, so Holling misses what happens next: the rats race into the parking lot, where a bus squashes them. The sky opens and it pours for a moment before morphing into a beautiful spring day.
The fact that others see and verify that the rats chase Holling like this means that it's possible to actually believe his narration of what happened, even though it's extremely far-fetched. It is worth noting, however, that his assertion that the rats had murder in their eyes is probably incorrect; they were likely just scared. When Danny grabs Holling and "saves" him from the rats, it again reinforces that friends like this will be Holling's greatest allies going forward.
Themes
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Holling's mad dash from Sycorax and Caliban sets a record, and he makes the varsity team. The story of the rats expands, and Mrs. Sidman becomes a school hero. Students draw pictures of her holding the rats. Mai Thi, on the other hand, fares horribly after standing her ground. Students begin to whisper that she wanted to eat them, as they believe Vietnamese people eat rats. This continues until one day at lunch, when Mrs. Bigio hands Mai Thi her lunch. A penitentiary eighth grader asks loudly if Mrs. Bigio has "Rat Surprise" for Mai Thi, and Mai Thi begins to cry. Danny dumps his tray over the eighth grader and punches him in the nose.
The students' bullying of Mai Thi follows the quickly diminishing support for the war around this time, as American deaths in Vietnam reached an all-time high in 1968. Here, when Danny stands up for Mai Thi, it shows that Holling isn't the only one forming a strong and connected community, and that Danny is an overwhelmingly loyal and moral person in general.
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Danny is suspended for four days, and his parents take him to Washington, D.C. because they're so proud. The day he returns, Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Bigio come into Mrs. Baker's class with nuoc mau, a Vietnamese dessert of fried bananas. When Mrs. Bigio puts a plate down in front of Mai Thi, she apologizes for her cruelty. Mai Thi teaches the class a Vietnamese song about bananas, and Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi embrace afterwards. That night on the news, Holling learns that the situation in Vietnam is getting worse.
Mrs. Bigio and Mai Thi are able to make up because Mrs. Bigio apologizes and admit she was wrong for being cruel and racist. This shows that critical thinking, and the willingness to alter one's understanding of another person, is essential to building community—and is, notably, something that Holling's dad won't do.
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