All the Wednesdays of September and into October, Mrs. Baker has Holling wash chalkboards, clean erasers, put up bulletin boards, and clean out the Coat Room. This is something that Holling hates, especially since Doug Swieteck has a stash of disgusting food items stored in there to use for “Number 166” on his list of how to make teachers hate you. Holling cleans the rest of the room but doesn't touch the box. He doesn't complain, especially since in early October, his dad becomes one of two candidates for the Baker Sporting Emporium remodel, and he reminds Holling nightly to not make Mrs. Baker hate him.
Holling takes his father’s warnings seriously, which shows that he is either terrified of disappointing his dad or has an exceptionally strong sense of familial loyalty. Given how imposing a figure Holling's dad is, the first is far more likely, but the second is also a possibility given how isolated Holling insists his family is. He never mentions his parents' friends or a church community, unlike all the other characters in the novel.
By this time, Doug Swieteck's brother still isn't in school. Doug shares why: his brother enjoyed his ten days of medical observation so much, that he decided he didn't want to come back to school. One evening, when Doug’s brother returned to school with his mother to meet with the teacher, he took erasers and pounded them against his head before sticking chalk in his mouth and racing around the school, roaring and slobbering. It was pure chance that poor Mrs. Sidman was there, clearing out her desk after deciding to leave her position in the office. Apparently, you could hear her screams echoing in the hallways until dawn. For this stunt, Doug Swieteck's brother got four more weeks of medical observation.
Holling is hearing this story secondhand from someone he's already suggested isn't necessarily trustworthy. This implies that the story Holling relays likely isn't entirely true, even if the results are the same (Mrs. Sidman still leaves her position; Doug's brother still gets out of school). In addition, Holling only ever refers to Doug Swieteck's brother as Doug Swieteck's brother. This shows that as far as Holling is concerned, Doug's brother’s name isn't important to his narrative, thereby reinforcing Holling’s limited perspective.
The day after this all comes to light, Mrs. Baker glares at the class, and Holling decides she must believe the whole thing is his fault. However, suspiciously, Mrs. Baker stops glaring when the class heads to Mr. Petrelli's classroom for geography. Holling thinks Mrs. Baker looks like an evil genius when she smiles at him, and he is still mulling over this fact when Mr. Petrelli hands out Study Question Data Sheets to fill out in pairs. Meryl Lee approaches Holling to be partners and assures him that Mrs. Baker doesn't look like an evil genius. They argue about the answers on the Data Sheets, and Holling continues to wonder what Mrs. Baker has in store for him.
It will later be revealed that Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Sidman are reasonably good friends, which may explain Mrs. Baker's glare—though it's also worth noting that her husband was just deployed, meaning that she has several reasons to look like she's in a bad mood. Again, Holling's interpretation that her look is that of an evil genius reflects his paranoia and limited perspective. He assumes her sour facial expression has something to do with him, and he is unable to consider any other possibilities.
Holling explains that recess became much safer after Mrs. Baker's "failed assassination plot," as the "would-be assassins" now leave him alone after what happened to Doug Swieteck's brother. As Holling runs out the door, Mrs. Baker calls him back in and asks him to run down to the kitchen to fetch trays of pastries. She insists that they're not for the class; they're for the Wives of Vietnam Soldiers' gathering later in the afternoon. She tells him to not look so suspicious and sends him off.
The "would-be assassins" (the eighth graders) probably aren't as interested in picking on people while their ringleader is out of school, so the idea that the older kids truly fear Holling is humorous and shows that he has an overblown sense of his own importance in the school. The mention of the Wives of Vietnam Soldiers group is the first mention of Mrs. Baker’s life outside of teaching.
Holling enters the kitchen on the first floor, prepared for the usual "fumes" of Mrs. Bigio's questionable food, but the kitchen smells like buttery pastries. He looks in awe at the trays of cream puffs, and Mrs. Bigio gruffly tells him to start carrying out the trays. Holling sadly reasons that he won't be thanked for his hard work with one of the cream puffs. Mrs. Bigio makes him carry the trays one at a time. This means twelve trips up three flights of stairs, which takes the entirety of recess. Holling arranges the trays under the open windows so the cream puffs can cool. When the rest of Holling's classmates returns from recess, they're excited to see all the cream puffs and somewhat distraught when Mrs. Baker sends them right off to math class.
It will soon come to Holling's attention that Mrs. Bigio's husband is also currently in Vietnam, which casts these cream puffs as an act of love and support for both her husband and the other women who are in her same situation. This is probably why she makes Holling carefully carry the trays one at a time.
Holling and his classmates spend the entirety of math class thinking about the cream puffs. When the Jewish students leave at 1:45 P.M., Danny threatens to kill Holling if he gets a cream puff, and ten minutes later, Meryl Lee promises to "do Number 408" to Holling if he gets a cream puff. Holling thinks he's safe, as he reasons it's more likely the President will show up than Mrs. Baker will give him a cream puff.
Danny and Meryl Lee's threats suggest that Holling is surrounded by bullying. The threats are overblown but paint a realistic picture of the middle school landscape.
A fifth grader named Charles comes into the room carrying a box and assures Mrs. Baker that he got "them" all. He puts the box on Mrs. Baker's desk and looks sadly at Holling before he leaves. Mrs. Baker turns to Holling and explains that the box contains all the erasers from the school for him to clean. Holling wants to complain, but he thinks of the future of Hoodhood and Associates. Mrs. Baker suggests that if they both finish their afternoon tasks on time, Holling can have a cream puff. Holling feels as though this must be a dream, but he carries the box outside into the beautiful October afternoon and gets to work.
The fact that Holling's first thought is of the family business shows that his father largely influences the way Holling thinks about the world and behaves. Holling's dad is training his son to believe that family and the business come first, and the way to support both is through unwavering loyalty—even if it means taking on unpleasant tasks.
As Holling pounds the erasers against the wall, the chalk dust fills his lungs and wafts to the closed windows of the first floor. Holling thinks of the beautiful cream puffs as the chalk dust continues to drift—up to the open third floor windows. Frantically, Holling gathers the erasers and races upstairs. He discovers he's too late: the chalk dust already settled over the cream puffs like powdered sugar. Mrs. Baker instructs him to choose a cream puff and then help her carry the rest to her car. Holling's cream puff feels gritty, and he tosses it into the Coat Room.
Though Holling feels a great deal of responsibility to keep the cream puffs safe, his fear and self-conscious nature keep him from speaking up when the cream puffs become covered in chalk dust. This shows that although Holling has a reasonable sense of integrity, he hasn't yet developed the confidence to speak up.
The "story of the cream puffs" spreads quickly through the town: all the Wives of Vietnam Soldiers choked on the puffs (which Holling believes is an exaggeration), they quickly realized that Mrs. Baker would never play a practical joke, and they settled for demoting Mrs. Bigio from her position as the Official Cook of the Wives of Vietnam Soldiers. In tears, Mrs. Bigio shoved a whole cream puff in her mouth and refused to let herself cough, which landed her in the hospital. Holling's dad turns on Holling at dinner on Thursday night and begins asking if he did anything to the cream puffs. Holling is saved from lying when his sister, Heather, sits down at the table with a yellow flower painted on her cheek.
The fact that Holling's dad immediately blames Holling for the cream puff incident provides some evidence for why Holling tends to believe that people are out to get him, or that it's his fault when bad things happen. Holling’s dad encourages this reading of the world, even when there's little evidence that Holling did anything. In this way, it seems that Holling’s father is inhibiting his son's coming of age and sense of self by sowing self-doubt instead.
Holling's dad asks Holling's mother to tell Heather that she has a flower painted on her cheek. Heather assures her family she's aware, and the reason is obvious. Holling's dad says it's not obvious unless she wants them to think she's a flower child. After a moment of silence, Holling's dad tells her that she can't be a flower child. She argues that flower children are beautiful, believe in peace and helping each other, and will change the world. Holling's dad insists that flower children are just hippies who can't change their socks. When she mentions the flower children protesting the war at the Pentagon, Holling's dad snaps that he's a candidate for the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1967, an honor he won't receive if his daughter is a flower child. He sends her to wash her face. She complies, and Holling's dad asks for the lima beans.
By opposing the flower children (the hippies of the 1960s), Holling's dad implies that he's politically conservative and possibly even supports the war in Vietnam. He also believes that associating with liberal politics is in direct opposition with his leadership and business goals, which suggests that the powerful elite in the area are also likely conservative. Heather, on the other hand, is just old enough to be a part of the major youth movements and protests that bubble up around this time, especially in the spring of 1968.
Later that night, Heather comes into his room, angry that he didn't support her in standing up to their dad. She insists that they have to believe in something bigger than themselves, and says that it's time for Holling to grow up to be the person he's supposed to be, not just "the son who is going to inherit Hoodhood and Associates." She asks why he lets their dad bully him, and he insists it never works when she stands up to him. She touches her cheek and goes to her room to play the Monkees.
Holling's apathy suggests that at this point, he's is willing to take the path of least resistance and become an architect, just as his dad wants. His sister, on the other hand, isn't bound up in loyalty to the family business—probably because her dad believes she can't or shouldn't inherit it, since she's female. This gives her the freedom to rebel as she sees fit.
The next morning, Mrs. Baker finds Holling and explains that they need to make some changes to their Wednesday afternoon routines, though he must perform one more chore—possibly for one more cream puff. When Mrs. Baker walks away, Meryl Lee, Danny, and Mai Thi descend on Holling to find out if he truly got a cream puff. They don't believe him when he says he didn't eat it, and they tell Holling that he owes them all cream puffs. Holling stops at Goldman's Best Bakery the next day and discovers that it'll take three weeks' worth of allowance money to buy the cream puffs, so he tells his classmates on Monday that he needs three weeks.
Holling responds to his classmates here in the same way he responded to his dad and sister: he sees that doing what his classmates want is the path of least resistance, even if he doesn't actually want to do it, and it will cost him nearly a month’s worth of allowance. The fact that Meryl Lee, Danny, and Mai Thi make a big deal out of this reinforces the fact that they're just children who aren't above using bullying and peer pressure to get what they want—they all have growing up to do.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Baker informs Holling that they're going to be reading Shakespeare on Wednesdays. Holling thinks this is the worst strategy ever, as teachers only ever invoke Shakespeare to torture students. Before they can start, however, she asks Holling to clean Sycorax and Caliban's cage. Sycorax and Caliban are pet rats. They were cute babies when Lieutenant Tybalt Baker bought them for Mrs. Baker, but they soon got big and scabby, with clacking yellow teeth. Nobody, Mrs. Baker included, likes to go near them.
It's worth noting that Holling's preconceived notions about Shakespeare aren't unique to just him, something that will be important to remember soon. The rats are named after monster figures in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though the fact that Lieutenant Baker bought them as a gift for Mrs. Baker suggests that they're more than monsters—they're a token of his love and affection.
Mrs. Baker tells Holling to dig out a small cage, transfer Sycorax and Caliban to it using food as a lure, and then clean out their large one. Her strategy for transferring the rats works surprisingly well, and Holling takes the cage outside to clean it. He brings it back up, spreads fresh sawdust, and positions the cage doors next to each other to move the rats back. As the rats start to clamber through, Mrs. Baker says that teachers don't teach Shakespeare just to bore their students. Holling is stunned to realize that Mrs. Baker knew what he was thinking, and he lets go of the cages and turns around to look at her.
Mrs. Baker is certainly not a mind reader, though she's aware of students' preconceived notions about Shakespeare. Again, the fact that Holling's first thought is that Mrs. Baker is a mind reader illustrates his immaturity and his warped understanding of Mrs. Baker's "power for evil."
The rats immediately begin pushing out between the cages, snarling and clacking their teeth. Holling thinks they look demonic, and he tries to shove the cages back together. Mrs. Baker shrieks, Sycorax leaps at Holling's thumb, and Holling jumps away. Mrs. Baker jumps onto a desk as the rats run into the Coat Room. In a strained voice, Mrs. Baker tells Holling to go fetch Mr. Vendleri. Holling leaves the room, jumping from desk to desk, and only explains to Mr. Vendleri what Mrs. Baker needs him to do when he arrives back at the Coat Room.
Holling's paranoia has major consequences here, as it causes the rats to escape. Mrs. Baker’s fear of the rats suggests that she only kept them as a reminder of her husband's love, an indicator to the reader that love can take many forms and different kinds of sacrifices.
Mr. Vendleri gets two brooms and a shovel so that Holling and Mrs. Baker can flush the rats out, while he'll catch them with the shovel. Holling is stunned that he's being asked to get so close to the rats, and he notes that all three of them look scared stiff as they go into the Coat Room. The rats prove uncatchable: they snarl and howl and retreat into the radiators, right after Sycorax abandons her found cream puff. Before long, Mr. Vendleri, Mrs. Baker, and Holling hear the rats climb up the walls and skitter across the ceiling tiles.
This is the first time anyone truly asks Holling to face his fears in the story, and it's notable that he does so in the company of teachers at school, and specifically Mrs. Baker. This suggests that his teachers, not his parents, will be the ones to guide Holling towards adulthood and a more mature perspective on life.
Mr. Vendleri decides he should tell Mr. Guareschi, and from the safety of her desk, Mrs. Baker agrees that this is a good idea. When the two men return, Mr. Guareschi decides that nobody should know about the escaped rats and swears everyone to silence. Holling addresses the reader and amends his narration: he and his teachers cursed while they were chasing the rats.
When Holling amends his narration, it makes it clear that he is, at times, hiding things from the reader. This makes his narration even less reliable, but it also sets Holling up with a starting point from which to grow and become more confident in his own story.
When Mrs. Baker and Holling are alone again, Mrs. Baker remarks that Holling only pretended to eat his cream puff. She declares this a wise choice and tells him to sit down. Slowly, Mrs. Baker climbs down from her desk and pulls out a massive, smelly black book for Holling. She tells him to open to The Merchant of Venice. Holling thinks the pictures are ridiculous and the text is insanely tiny, but Mrs. Baker's strategy of boring him isn't working: the play is pretty okay. Parts of it even give him shivers, and he's thrilled to have spoiled her plot.
Holling's paranoia and distrust of Mrs. Baker means he never considers the possibility that she's actually just trying to introduce him to Shakespeare, not bore him. Regardless, Holling likes the play and seems excited enough to want to read more, which means that he will likely use what he reads in Shakespeare to think about his life, just as he did already with Treasure Island.
That night, Holling dreams that Doug Swieteck's brother is Shylock, and they're in a courtroom with their other classmates. Mrs. Baker is the judge. Holling and Mrs. Baker take two more days to read The Merchant of Venice, and when they're done, they discuss the character of Shylock. Holling suggests that he's not a true villain; he just wants to become who he's supposed to be. When Mrs. Baker asks why Shylock couldn't do that, Holling answers that the other characters decided that Shylock had to be a certain way, and it trapped him. Mrs. Baker declares that this is why the play is a tragedy.
Holling's assessment of Shylock's character suggests that not all villains are evil; some are simply at the mercy of what the world has forced them to be. This kind of nuanced reading gives Holling the tools—in the safe, confined space of literature—to practice making these kinds of assessments and thinking critically about people and about the world.