The Wednesday Wars follows thirteen-year-old Holling Hoodhood, a student at Camillo Junior High School, through the entirety of his seventh grade year. At thirteen, Holling is just beginning to think of himself as a person in the world, and most importantly, think about the world beyond him. For Holling, much of his coming of age happens as he begins to question his preconceptions about the world and about the people in it, finally coming to an understanding by the end of the novel that other people lead rich internal lives, just like he does. In this way, the novel suggests that one of the most important elements of coming of age is developing this ability to empathize with others and treat them as fully formed people, not just one-dimensional caricatures.
The novel illustrates this transformation from self-absorbed child to reasonably empathetic teenager mostly through Holling's narration. Holling is an unreliable narrator; the first-person narration means that everything Holling shares with the reader is necessarily filtered through his often-limited perspective. The fact that Holling's perspective is so limited is most evident in how he speaks about his sister, Heather, and Doug Swieteck's brother—both of whom are, for most of the novel, referred to only as "my sister" and "Doug Swieteck's brother." These characters certainly have names (and Holling does finally begin referring to his sister by name late in the novel), so the fact that Holling refers to them in this way indicates that he is simply uninterested in sharing their names with the reader. For him, it's just not necessary to his narration to ever use their names. Holling finally uses Heather's name after spending the few weeks that she's absent thinking hard about who she actually is as a person, what she believes in, and what role she really played in the family when she was at home. These thoughts, which had never occurred to him before, show that Holling is starting to think of Heather as a full, rounded person. In this way, the novel offers a very tangible turning point in Holling's coming of age.
More gradual is the transformation Holling goes through in his relationship with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. On his first day of seventh grade, Holling decides that Mrs. Baker must hate him, given that she rolled her eyes when she realized that as the only Presbyterian student in her class, Holling will spend Wednesday afternoons in class with her, rather than at catechism or Hebrew school like her Catholic and Jewish students. That any teacher would outright hate a student for this reason, especially on the first day of school, is absurd. Both Holling's mother and father point out that Mrs. Baker barely knows Holling, and further, that it's unlikely she would hate him without reason. When Holling refuses to listen to his parents and insists that they're not truly listening to him on account of a "parent gene," it reinforces how limited Holling's perspective truly is—he flattens Mrs. Baker and his parents to caricatures simply performing a prescribed role.
Over the course of their Wednesday afternoon lessons, Holling gradually begins to understand that Mrs. Baker is much more than a hateful and conniving teacher—though often, he makes important realizations only after he makes extremely misguided assumptions. He learns that she was an Olympic runner only after he questions what she knows about proper running form, and his belief that she's hateful is completely dashed when he watches her comfort Mrs. Bigio, the school cook, after she receives word that her husband died. Essentially, over the ten months of the novel, Holling realizes that Mrs. Baker isn't just a teacher; she doesn't sleep under her desk, and she doesn't live for torturing students. Rather, he learns that she's a married woman who deeply loves her husband and fears for his life while he fights in Vietnam; she's a loyal friend to both her coworkers and her students; and most importantly for Holling, she steps in and performs a parental role when Holling's parents are absent—clear proof that she doesn't hate him at all.
Though Holling makes these leaps to seeing his teachers and sisters as full humans, it's important to note that he is still at the beginning of his process of coming of age. Doug Swieteck's brother remains unnamed, and even if Holling does recognize that Mrs. Baker is more than a teacher, he still feels as though it's a strange to speak to her outside of an educational setting. However, by the end of the novel, the realizations that Holling has made allow him to feel like an integrated part of his community and to know where he exists within it. This suggests, finally, that recognizing the other people’s humanity is a crucial part of coming of age and successfully finding one's place in the world.
Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Coming of Age Quotes in The Wednesday Wars
How do parents get to where they can say things like this? There must be some gene that switches on at the birth of the firstborn child, and suddenly stuff like that starts to come out of their mouths.
I was amazed that Mrs. Baker was letting me read this. It's got to be censored all over the place. I figured that she hadn't read it herself, otherwise she would never have let me at it.
"Must all history center around your own personal experience, Hoodhood?" Mr. Petrelli asked.
Everyone—except for Caliban—is happy, and everyone is forgiven, and everyone is fine, and they all sail away on calm seas. Happy endings.
That's how it is in Shakespeare.
But Shakespeare was wrong.
Sometimes there isn't a Prospero to make everything fine again.
And sometimes the quality of mercy is strained.
I guess it didn't matter to them that the Bing Crosby Christmas Special was on television tonight, the way it mattered to my parents, who would never, ever miss it. I guess the Hupfers thought that a Shakespeare debut was a whole lot more important than hearing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" one more time—even though Mr. Hupfer was loosening his tie and holding his hand over a yawn.
When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you're not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place. Or if you'd want another god to fill their place. You don't want fire to go out inside you twice.
"Pick it up and be glad you're getting it. You shouldn't even be here, sitting like a queen in a refugee home while American boys are sitting in swamps on Christmas Day. They're the ones who should be here. Not you."
Mai Thi took her Something. She looked down, and kept going.
She probably didn't see that Mrs. Bigio was pulling her hairnet down lower over her face, because she was almost crying.
But Doug went on in, and he came back out carrying the cardboard box for Number 166 from the Coat Room. He looked at us, shrugged, and hauled it away down the hall, staggering under its clumsy weight.
Doug wouldn't tell us what he said when he saw the pictures and the can of yellow paint. All I know is that he wouldn't help, and so took a black eye […] Whatever it means to be a friend, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it.
And that's when something changed. I suddenly wondered if my father was really like Shylock. Not because he loved ducats, but because maybe he had become the person that everyone expected him to become. I wondered if he ever had a choice, or if he had ever felt trapped. Or if he had ever imagined a different life.
You know things are bad when the United States Marine Corps is using stethoscopes and divining rods.
Still, the White House announced that the enemy offensive was running out of steam, that casualties at Khesanh were light, that we would never give up the marine base there.
It also didn't help that Mrs. Baker kept wiping at her eyes during her grading. She'd told us that she had a terrible cold, but she hardly needed to tell us. Her eyes were mostly red all the time, and the way she blew her nose could be pretty impressive. Sometimes while sitting at her desk, she'd just stop doing whatever she was doing and look somewhere far away, like she wasn't even in the classroom anymore.
"It was for the women's four-by-one hundred relay. Don't look so surprised. You didn't think I'd spent my whole life behind this desk, did you?"
And I suddenly realized that, well, I guess I had. Weren't all teachers born behind their desks, fully grown, with a red pen in their hand and ready to grade?
"The whole world is going crazy," my father said, "and no place is crazier than college. You'll stay at your job and be safe."
For supper, my mother set only three places. She did not cook lima beans. She did not say anything while my father swore up and down […] Didn't she realize that this didn't help his business reputation or his chances for the Chamber of Commerce Businessman of 1968, which that creep Kowalski was trying to steal from him?
"Would you mind not calling me 'Mr. Hoodhood'? It sounds like you're talking to my father."
That's when I knew for the first time that I really did love my sister. But I didn't know if I wanted more for her to come back or for her to find whatever it was that she was trying to find.
I could tell that Mrs. Baker was wanting to try it. It was probably getting hot on the open rocks above the falls, with the sun coming straight down now […]
It's got to be hard to be a teacher all the time and not jump into a pool of clear water and come up laughing and snorting with water up your nose.
"You think that's how you become a man, by chanting a few prayers?"
"You think you become a man by getting a job as an architect?"