Holling Hoodhood tells the reader that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him with a burning passion—for absolutely no reason. He says it would've made sense if she'd hated Doug Swieteck, as he once made a list of 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you. The year before, Doug tried “Number 6” on Mrs. Sidman, and stained her face the color of a mango for days. Doug was suspended for two weeks, and Mrs. Sidman switched jobs to work in the main office. She became wary and withdrawn and stayed as far away from students as she could. Holling says he did nothing to provoke Mrs. Baker and even tries to stay as far away from Doug as possible so he won't suffer the blame for anything Doug does.
From the beginning, Holling shows that he thinks of people as being one-dimensional: Mrs. Baker is nothing more than a hateful teacher, and Doug is just a troublemaker. This simple-mindedness emphasizes Holling’s youth. In addition, Holling seems to caricaturize people when they pose a threat to him, highlighting his self-absorption and possibly insecurity.
On the first day of seventh grade, Mrs. Baker calls roll. From the names, you can tell where everyone lives: Jewish last names means a student lives on the north side of town, while Italian last names mean a student lives in the south. Holling, however, lives in the exact middle of town in what his dad calls the Perfect House, and he's Presbyterian. This situation, he declares, is a disaster: his two Presbyterian friends moved away last summer, which means that on Wednesday afternoons, Holling will be the only one who remains with Mrs. Baker while the Jewish students are at Hebrew school and the Catholic students are at catechism.
Holling implies that the Perfect House, designed and nicknamed by his father, isn't actually perfect at all, which suggests that Holling and his father perhaps don’t see eye-to-eye. The name Perfect House also indicates that Holling's dad is preoccupied with keeping up appearances and making his family look a certain way.
When Mrs. Baker calls Holling's name during roll, he thinks her tone is hopeful when she asks if he attends Temple Beth-El or Saint Adelbert's. When they both ascertain that he'll be spending Wednesdays with her, Holling thinks Mrs. Baker’s face looks as though the sun won't shine again until the end of the school year, and Holling feels as though he's going to throw up the omelet his mother made him for breakfast.
It's worth considering here whether Holling's assessment is accurate, or if what he "sees" in Mrs. Baker's face is actually a reflection of what he feels. This also reinforces the fact that Holling is an unreliable narrator.
When Holling walks home that afternoon, he notices, as usual, that the sidewalk squares become perfectly white and uncracked as he approaches the Perfect House. The azalea bushes outside are perfect, and the symmetrical windows make the house look neat. When Holling gets inside, he thinks about a sugary snack and walks past the Perfect Living Room, where the furniture is covered in plastic, and a baby grand piano that nobody in the Hoodhood family can play sits by the window. It's supposed to impress people, as Mr. Hoodhood is an architect.
The outward perfection of the Perfect House is undeniable, which shows that someone—likely Holling's dad—puts a lot of time and effort into maintaining the pristine home. However, Holling's assertion that the piano is intended only to impress people and serves no other purpose suggests that Holling's dad is obsessed with how he and his family appear to other people.
Holling finds his mother in the kitchen and informs her that Mrs. Baker hates him. She assures him that Mrs. Baker doesn't hate him, as she barely knows him. Holling wonders if a gene switches on when a parent has their first child that makes them say stuff like this.
When Holling mentions the parent gene, it's a way for him to explain away a perspective that challenges his own, thereby reinforcing his own version of events in his mind.
After supper, Holling tells his dad that Mrs. Baker hates him. He shushes Holling, as he's in the middle of watching Walter Cronkite's newscast. Holling watches until a commercial break and then repeats his statement. His dad says that nobody hates someone without reason, and asks if Mrs. Baker is Mrs. Betty Baker of the Baker family that owns the Baker Sporting Emporium. Holling's dad tells Holling that the Baker Sporting Emporium is considering Hoodhood and Associates to remodel its building. Because of this, Holling should not do anything to make Mrs. Baker hate him—if he does, there will be no architecture firm for Holling to inherit. Holling feels like he is going to vomit again.
Holling's dad dismisses Holling’s concerns and instead emphasizes the towering importance of protecting the family business’s reputation. This shows that Holling's dad cares more about his business (and by extension, his own image) than he does about his son’s feelings. In addition, Holling’s dad does little to show Holling that he may be misjudging the situation with Mrs. Baker, which only perpetuates Holling’s distorted view of his teacher.
Finally, Holling finds his sixteen-year-old sister (later revealed as Heather) to ask her for help. She's in her room, listening to the Monkees, and is dismissive when Holling tells her of his plight. She does sympathize about their dad's reaction, but she suggests he either escape to California or get some guts for Mrs. Baker to hate. That night, Holling reads his favorite novel, Treasure Island. He reads the part where a character is victorious only because of dumb luck, and he decides that he doesn't want to have to count on dumb luck, too.
Heather’s suggestion, though harshly worded, suggests that she is aware that Holling is self-conscious and insecure. Holling reads Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which follows a young boy named Jim Hawkin as he embarks on a quest to find buried treasure. Since Treasure Island is Holling’s favorite book, perhaps he longs for adventures of his own.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Baker eyes Holling in the morning when he comes out of the Coat Room. Holling has an epiphany: Mrs. Baker booby-trapped his desk. He inspects it carefully and sees nothing amiss, but asks Meryl Lee Kowalski, who is in love with him, to open the desk in case there's something inside. He insists there might be a surprise for her inside. Meryl Lee complies, but when she finds nothing but textbooks, she drops the desktop and apologizes for not dropping it on Holling's fingers.
The idea that a teacher would booby-trap a student's desk is silly, and the fact that Holling believes it's a real possibility shows his immaturity. Holling also assumes that Mrs. Baker’s facial expression has something to do with him—he fails to understand that Mrs. Baker could be dealing with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with Holling. Further, Holling’s certainty that Meryl Lee loves him also shows his self-absorption, while Meryl Lee’s insult suggests that she does not, in fact, love him.
Holling is afraid to go outside for recess, as it's likely that Mrs. Baker recruited an eighth grader to torment him. He fears she might have roped in Doug Swieteck's brother, who has already been arrested several times. Holling tries to read in the classroom, but Mrs. Baker, with "criminal intent" in her eyes, shoos him outside. He sticks close to Mrs. Sidman, but his plan to keep a ten-foot distance between himself and other students is thwarted almost immediately when Doug Swieteck's brother invites Holling to play soccer. Mrs. Sidman encourages Holling to play, and Holling feels he has no choice but to accept.
Again, the possibility that Mrs. Baker would rope in older students to harass Holling is absurd and points to his own self-centeredness and paranoia. While Holling sees "criminal intent" in her eyes, it's more likely Mrs. Baker is just wants a few moments to herself during lunchtime.
Holling takes his position on the field, and Doug Swieteck's brother explains that Holling will play defense, which means he has to try to stop him. Holling thinks he might be able to stop Doug's brother with a tank and grenade launchers but he agrees to play anyway. Doug's brother laughs, and Holling imagines Mrs. Baker inside her classroom, laughing too. He figures he'll just kick the ball away if it comes towards him. This plan, however, proves impossible: Doug's brother comes right at Holling, yelling and slobbering. Danny Hupfer, the goalie, yells at Holling to get in front. Holling steps towards the sideline, and Doug's brother seems to follow him.
The soccer game suggests that Holling isn't wrong about everything—Doug's brother following Holling is probably somewhat true, though he’s probably not as animalistic and slobbery as Holling insists he is. Holling’s comment about the tank and grenade launchers is one of the first references to the Vietnam War, which takes place during the story.
Holling remembers his characters from Treasure Island and remembers that he should have guts. He runs towards the goal, and when Doug Swieteck's brother is nearly on top of him, he steps away and trips him. Doug's brother's head clunks against a goal post. When Holling opens his eyes, Doug's brother is wobbling, and Mrs. Sidman is running towards them. Doug's brother vomits on her, and Danny congratulates Holling. Doug Swieteck does too, as does Meryl Lee. Holling is confused and admits that he didn't mean to take out Doug Swieteck's brother or make him look like an idiot, which enrages Meryl Lee: she insists that Holling tried to make her look like an idiot earlier, when he asked her to open his desk.
When Holling uses Treasure Island to influence his actions during the soccer game, it shows how he relies on literature to guide the way he moves through the world. Meryl Lee's rage that Holling humiliated her earlier adds more evidence that Holling is unreasonably paranoid about Mrs. Baker. Despite this, Danny, Meryl Lee, and Doug's praise of Holling suggests that Doug's brother is truly a bully, given the amount of support for this comeuppance.
Mrs. Baker's face looks pinched when the class returns after recess, which Holling figures is the "disappointment of a failed assassination plot." The PA system announces that Doug Swieteck's brother will be back after ten days. Mrs. Baker teaches her students how to diagram sentences that afternoon. Holling's classmates diagram easy sentences on the board, while she asks Holling to diagram what he deems an impossible sentence. As she begins to coach him through it, the PA system calls Holling to the office.
Holling's interpretation of Mrs. Baker's face is only an indication to his own paranoid beliefs; it's far more likely that she's concerned for the wellbeing of a student. Even though Holling feels as though the "impossible sentence" is punishment, it's far more likely that Mrs. Baker wants to push him, not punish him.
Holling is thrilled to get to escape, but he sees that Mrs. Baker looks victorious. He decides she probably called the police on him for tripping Doug Swieteck's brother. Holling walks to Mr. Guareschi's office. The general belief among students at the school is that Mr. Guareschi wants to be the dictator of a small country. Finally, Mr. Guareschi calls Holling into his office. Mr. Guareschi calls him "Holling Hood," and insists that forms are never wrong when Holling tries to correct his name. Finally, Mr. Guareschi explains that Mrs. Baker is concerned with Holling's below-average but passing grade in sixth grade math and has asked if Holling could sit in on a sixth grade math class on Wednesday afternoons.
Here, Mr. Guareschi seems similar to Holling's dad in that he doesn't allow any differing perspectives to threaten what he believes. This is also how Holling thinks at this point, so Mr. Guareschi's mindset is only offensive to Holling because it contradicts Holling's understanding of the world.
Mr. Guareschi thinks for a moment, but decides that a passing grade is a passing grade. He warns Holling that he might still have to retake sixth grade math, but for now, he'll remain in seventh grade math. Mr. Guareschi writes a note to Mrs. Baker and seals it in an envelope before handing it to Holling. He informs Holling that he will check and make sure that Mrs. Baker received a sealed envelope.
When Mr. Guareschi mentions checking with Mrs. Baker about the sealed envelope, it shows that he doesn't trust any of his students. This seems to echo Holling’s distrust of Mrs. Baker.
Holling does as he's told and delivers the sealed envelope to Mrs. Baker. Mrs. Baker reads the note, puts it in her desk, and says, "regrettable." Holling watches her carefully for the rest of the day but cannot find any clues that give away her "murderous intentions." Her face doesn't even change when the PA announces that her husband, Lieutenant Tybalt Baker, will be deployed to Vietnam soon, and all the students should wish both Lieutenant and Mrs. Baker well. Holling reasons that this is just how people who are plotting something act.
Mrs. Baker likely just wanted an afternoon to herself once per week, so her annoyance that Holling has to stick around is understandable. Notice too that although Holling hears that Mrs. Baker's husband is being deployed, Holling doesn't actually engage with the news. Holling is oblivious to the possibility that Mrs. Baker may be feeling scared and anxious about her husband’s impending deployment. Once again, Holling only thinks about himself.