Applying School Skills in Life: The Message of The Wednesday Wars

In the book the Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is a seventh grader at Camillo Junior High in suburban Long Island in the 1967-1968 school year, with the entire book set in the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Holling’s teacher is Mrs. Baker, whose husband is in Vietnam; Mrs. Baker is teaching Holling whilst Mr. Baker is fighting for him. Holling learns much from Mrs. Baker in many ways, from social advice to Shakespeare. In the book the Wednesday Wars, the conflict between Holling and Mrs. Baker teaches him life lessons that he uses to overcome boundaries later in the book. Holling’s conflict with Mrs. Baker causes him to learn lessons about his friends and family that he uses later in the book.

As one of her most important insights, Mrs. Baker conveys to Holling the profound importance of family. Holling uses this lesson later in the book when his sister is stranded and she calls him from Minneapolis. He chooses to do everything in his power to help her, against his father’s wishes, showing his extreme value of family, as taught to him by Mrs. Baker. This lesson is reinforced by Mrs. Baker when Holling sees the deep emotional ties and the pain of separation between Mrs. Baker and her husband, Lt. Tybalt Baker, who is serving in Vietnam. Holling uses this to great effect with his love, Meryl Lee Kowalski. Two objects that represent this are strawberries and roses, respectively. The picking of the strawberries is the time Lt. Baker is supposed to return home, and the rose shows the relationship between Holling and Meryl Lee because she holds up a rose at the cross-country meet for him, a crucial point of their growing love for each other. Secondly, Mrs. Baker teaches Holling the vast importance of friends, such as ones like Danny Hupfer and Doug Swieteck. Mrs. Baker explains to Holling what a friend is; faithful, supportive, and kind, as he had never had a true friend before. Holling gains his first true friends as the book progresses, as shown by how all his friends and their families come at to his cross-country meet to support him, even though his family does not, as well as Doug Swieteck standing up for him in front of his brother, and getting a black eye for his trouble. Holling learns that friends will always be there for you, and he tries to use this newfound knowledge with his friends, as exemplified by how he helps Danny at lunch every day with his Hebrew for his bar mitzvah.

Mrs. Baker also shows Holling that friendship can triumph over boundaries, like Romeo and Juliet (love and friendship are opposite sides of a coin). Another example of this is Holling’s friendship/love for Meryl Lee, even though there are conflicts between the two families, Mr. Kowalski and Mr. Hoodhood, who are rival architects in the town. Lastly, Mrs. Baker teaches Holling that family is not just genetic, it is who cares about you. In this definition by the end of the book, Mr. Hoodhood would not be Holling’s family and Mrs. Baker and Holling’s friends would, which is the feeling the reader senses in the penultimate, and ultimate, chapters of the book. Holling’s conflict with Mrs. Baker causes him to realize that he is insignificant in the big picture/the world at large; Holling realizes there are things larger than any one person and that hardship is relative (through other characters). At the start of the book, Holling is only thinking about himself and his problems. He is not thinking about bigger conflicts in the world (Vietnam). This comes to a climax afterschool, when Holling says to Mrs. Baker: “It’s not like it’s your picture in the halls, or that you have all that much to worry about,” I said. Mrs. Baker’s face went suddenly white. She opened her lower desk drawer, put her copy of Shakespeare into it, and closed it. Loudly. “Go sit down and fix the errors on your Macbeth exam,” she said. I did. We said nothing else to each other that whole afternoon. Not even when I left. (Schmidt, 110). Holling experiences many first-world problems at the same time other people are having life-changing struggles, yet Holling says irrationally that he is the one who is getting the short end of the stick. This causes animosity between Mrs. Baker and Holling for a short while, however it is resolved quickly (relatively speaking).

One other way that Holling begins to realize that he is insignificant is by realizing that there are things (values/ideals) that are more important than any one person. He realizes this through two ways, from his sister trying to be a flower girl, and his parents uniting under their nationalist views. Firstly, in the October chapter, Heather comes to dinner with a flower painted on her face. She says to Mr. Hoodhood: “A flower child is beautiful and doesn’t harm anyone,” said my sister . . . “We believe in peace and understanding and freedom. We believe in sharing and helping each other. We’re going to change the world. . . “I want support for believing in something bigger than just me.” (36-37). All of these words have positive connotations and are words used to represent big ideals/values. The second way Holling realizes this is through his parent’s one similar interest: patriotism. In the March chapter, Holling’s parents, who are normally so separate, hold hands for a common cause, America. This really shocks Holling into reality, as Heather parading around the house like a left-wing radical is not too uncommon in the Hoodhood household, but Holling’s parents, although man and wife, actually showing affection for each other? That alerted Holling, as he had been oblivious to this fact the entire book up to then. Holling’s conflict with Mrs. Baker causes Holling to learn lessons about independence; that he is his own person and can decide his own fate, as well as the fact that he can do anything if he really puts his mind to it.

At the beginning of the book, Holling does not know how to be his own person, shown by a conversation of his between him and his sister, “I am Holling Hoodhood.” She says, “Isn’t it comforting to think so? But when I look at you, you’re just the Son Who Is Going to Inherit Hoodhood and Associates.” He says back, “It’s the same thing,” (37) Another example of this is in January, of the book when Holling is going to ask his parents if he can go to the Alabama Military Institute after death threats from his classmates, but when his father gets the contract for the new school he stopped even considering the idea. However, Holling does learn from Mrs. Baker how to become his own person, through the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice, and more specifically, the character of Shylock. At the very end of October, they have a discussion, via the play, of how to become what you are meant to be. Holling shows that he has learned this lesson and has decided that what his father wants him to be is not what he is meant to be by a conversation between Holling and Mrs. Baker in the classroom Wednesday afterschool: “This, Mr. Hoodhood, is ridiculous,” she said. “Mrs. Baker?” . . . “Could you not call me ‘Mr. Hoodhood’? It sounds like you’re talking to my father.” . . . “I just don’t want to be him already.” “But you want to decide for yourself,” said Mrs. Baker. I nodded. I wanted to decide for myself. (219-220). Holling is trying to distance himself from his father and make his own choices/decide his own destiny, just as Heather did by running away (however, that particular example failed miserably). Holling also learns that if he puts all of his effort into something, it will most likely succeed. This is a significant change from his attitude at the beginning of the book, when he was very negative about his abilities. A prime example of this is at the cross-country meet in which, after much encouragement, Holling focuses on winning the race, and in fact does.

Indeed, Holling changes much in the book because of Mrs. Baker’s teaching, one final example being how Holling stops only thinking about himself and sees that there are other people that are have much worse struggles than him, like in Vietnam and Mrs. Baker’s worrying about Mr. Baker. He realizes this when he sees the telegram saying that Lt. Baker is missing in action and Mrs. Baker’s following reactions. Holling learns many other lessons from Mrs. Baker, too, many of them lessons that can be applied to almost any situation. These lessons he learns are life lessons, and he immediately puts them to full effect, shown by how he uses the lessons to solve his own problems immediately after he learns them. Holling is indebted to Mrs. Baker for teaching him these things, as they will guide him for the rest of his life.