Though a good deal of the book is concerned with Wolff’s recollections of his home and family life throughout his adolescence, in many ways the world of school is the place where the young Jack discovers the most about himself. As a new kid in a small, strange town outside of Seattle, Jack must find a way to navigate his abusive home and the more banally cruel world of middle and high school. Jack’s education, though, is not just academic; through Jack’s training as a dutiful, attentive Boy Scout (pushed upon him by Dwight) and his often raucous, dangerous social life, Wolff explores what it is to live a “boy’s life” and what it was to be educated in the ways of the world by such a strange confluence of exceptional circumstances, ultimately arguing that the most profound educations are attained outside the bounds of a classroom.
Because Jack is an adolescent, the majority of his life is structured around school. School, though, is not a place where Jack seems to learn a lot; his education is not important to him, and only becomes important when it emerges as a means of escaping his miserable, abusive household. At school, Jack feels, and is seen as being, “colorless and mild.” He is not a “tough guy,” though he longs to be, and he and his friends spend most of their time breaking windows, drawing graffiti, and getting into other kinds of petty trouble. His lessons and readings are of little importance to him, and he regards his teachers with either fear (in the case of the volatile, military-bred Mr. Mitchell) or contempt (in the case of his spacey speech teacher Miss Houlihan, and his desperate-for-relevance shop instructor, “Horseface” Greeley). Jack rarely pays attention in school—just going to class sometimes seems like “too much” effort for him. He is mostly concerned with his burgeoning social status—after he at last falls in with a group of “notorious older boys” who introduce him to alcohol and attempt to help him lose his virginity, the academic aspect of school all but fades away.
School is mainly a social place for the young Jack, a place where he can make friends and goof off—though for Mr. Wolff and Jack’s brother, Geoffrey, where they were educated is a definitive part of their identities. Geoffrey attends Princeton, and went to boarding school at the prestigious Choate; the boys’ biological father attended similarly flashy, respected schools and is now a successful engineer. Though Jack vaguely misses his father and brother, their prestigious paths in life haven’t really held much allure for the young Jack, until he and Geoffrey begin exchanging letters and short fictions, and during a phone conversation with Geoffrey in which Jack confesses to being abused by Dwight, and Geoffrey suggests Jack try and secure a scholarship to Choate. Realizing that admission to a prestigious boarding school would mean being able to escape Concrete—and Dwight—Jack launches himself into the plan to secure an offer of acceptance, and painstakingly forges his transcripts, letters of recommendation, and list of extracurricular activities in a bid to make himself seem like the kind of student he has, underneath it all, always wanted to be.
As Jack, for the first time in his life, considers seriously pursuing his education, he’s forced to confront the ways in which his education has been rather nontraditional. Jack isn’t book-smart, but he fancies himself a writer; he’s not on any school sport teams, but his Boy Scout training has equipped him with some athletic prowess; his social activities and penchant for mischief make him seem immature, and yet due to his fraught, painful, and traumatic childhood, Jack has witnessed and endured things other kids his age cannot yet fathom, lending him an adult air of sober knowledge and defiance. Jack’s “education” has largely stemmed from the pressures of his abusive stepfather and the coping mechanisms he himself has developed in order to survive. When an alumnus of the prestigious Hill school, Mr. Howard, interviews Jack as a pretext for recommending him to the school, he describes the unique challenges that accompany boarding school life—prep school, he says, is not for everyone, and Jack may do more harm than good by taking on a challenge he isn’t ready for. “Life in a boys’ school can come as a bit of a shock to someone who’s led a sheltered life,” Mr. Howard tells Jack; Jack replies that his life has not been sheltered, a statement whose gravity Mr. Howard cannot even begin to understand.
Ultimately, Jack’s “education”—his experiential and academic education combined—do take him to the Hill School. He succeeds for a time, but whenever things get tough, he “panic[s] and [does] Wildman things” that get him in trouble. During Chapel, he prays fervently for the will to pull himself up again so that he can stay; he professes to “secretly and deeply love” his school, but his desperation to remain a part of its student body no doubt stems from his fear of being sent back to the last place he was educated—a place which left him with an impression of the world and its evils far too unforgiving for a boy his age. Jack has been educated by institutions, to be sure, but his real education has been his own tumultuous and uniquely difficult life. It is not what school has taught him that has shaped him, but the trials and tribulations he has faced that have “educated” him on the path from boy to man.
Education Quotes in This Boy’s Life
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the comer and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it.
"Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small.
Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 rounds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.
I listened from the living room. My mother argued at first but Marian overwhelmed her. This time, by God, she was going to make my mother see the light. Marian didn't have all the goods on me, but she had enough to keep her going for a while and she put her heart into it, hitting every note she knew in the song of my malfeasance.
It went on and on. I reheated upstairs to the bedroom and waited for my mother, rehearsing answers to the charges Marian had made against me. But when my mother came into the room she said nothing. She sat for a while on the edge of her bed, rubbing her eyes; then, moving slowly, she undressed to her slip and went into the bathroom and drew herself a bath, and lay in the water for a long time as she sometimes did when she got chilled coming home at night in a cold rain.
I had my answers ready but there were no questions. After my mother finished her bath she lay down and read, then fixed us dinner and read some more. She turned in early. Answers kept coming to me in the dark, proofs of my blamelessness that I knew to be false but could not stop myself from devising.
I wanted to do what Dwight expected me to do, but I couldn't. I stood where I was and stared at the beaver. Dwight came up beside me. "That pelt's worth fifty dollars, bare minimum." He added, "Don't tell me you're
afraid of the damned thing."
"Then pick it up." He watched me. "It's dead, for Christ's sake. It's just meat. Are you afraid of hamburger? Look." He bent down and gripped the tail in one hand and lifted the beaver off the ground. He tried to make this appear effortless but I could see he was surprised and strained by the beaver's weight. A stream of blood ran out of its nose, then stopped. A few drops fell on Dwight's shoes before he jerked the body away. Holding the beaver in front of him with both hands, Dwight carried it to the open trunk and let go. It landed hard. "There," he said, and wiped his hands on his pant leg.
Whenever I was told to think about something, my mind became a desert. But this time I had no need of thought, because the answer was already there. I was my mother's son. I could not be anyone else's. When I was younger and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed their own life, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me. Nor swim, nor sing. I could imagine leaving her. I knew I would, someday. But to call someone else my mother was impossible.
I brought home good grades at first. They were a fraud—l copied other kids' homework on the bus down from Chinook and studied for tests in the hallways as I walked from class to class. After the first marking period I didn't bother to do that much. I stopped studying altogether. Then I was given C's instead of A's, yet no one at home ever knew that my grades had fallen. The report cards were made out, incredibly enough, in pencil, and I owned some pencils myself.
All I had to do was go to class, and sometimes even that seemed too much. I had fallen in with some notorious older boys from Concrete who took me on as a curiosity when they discovered that I'd never been drunk and still had my cherry. I was grateful for their interest. I wanted distinction, and the respectable forms of it seemed to be eluding me. If I couldn't have it as a citizen I would have it as an outlaw.
I declined to say I was a football star, but I did invent a swimming team for Concrete High. The coach wrote a fine letter for me, and so did my teachers and the principal. They didn't gush. They wrote plainly about a gifted, upright boy who had already in his own quiet way exhausted the resources of his school and community. They had done what they could for him. Now they hoped that others would carry on the good work.
I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.
After I got up [Arthur] rushed me, and without calculation I sidestepped and threw him an uppercut. It stopped him cold. He just stood there, shaking his head. I hit him again and the bell rang.
I caught him with that uppercut twice more during the final round, but neither of them rocked him like that first one. That first one was a beaut. I launched it from my toes and put everything I had into it, and it shivered his timbers. I could feel it travel through him in one pure line. I could feel it hurt him. And when it landed, and my old friend's head snapped back so terribly, I felt a surge of pride and connection; connection not to him but to Dwight. I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I'd struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.
Everyone liked Chuck. Sober, he was friendly and calm and openhanded. When I admired a sweater of his he gave it to me, and later he gave me a Buddy Holly album we used to sing along with. Chuck liked to sing when he wasn't in church. It was hard to believe, seeing him in the light of day, that he had spent the previous night throwing himself against a tree. That was why the Bolgers had so much trouble coming to terms with his wildness. They saw nothing of it. He lingered over meals in the main house, talked with his father about the store, helped his mother with the dishes. His little sisters fawned on him like spaniels. Chuck seemed for all the world a boy at home with himself, and at these times he was. It wasn't an act. So when the other Chuck, the bad Chuck, did something, it always caught the Bolgers on their blind side and knocked them flat.
Mrs. Howard arranged the scarf so it hung casually between the lapels of the overcoat. She glanced at me again and then stepped back so that I was alone before the mirror. The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted oppression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.
He studied me as if I held the answer.
Luckily for him, he was no judge of men. If he had seen the fissures in my character he might have known what he was in for. He might have known that he was headed for all kinds of trouble, and, knowing this, he might have lost heart before the game even got started.
But he saw nothing to alarm him. He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pocket, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose, something of the stage cavalier, but his smile was friendly and hopeful.