Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Education

By Betty Smith

Education

“What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.” (9.57-58)

Francie’s grandma sounds like she could have popped right off a public service announcement from today. Most professionals agree that reading to your children is one of the best things you can do for them.

She yearned for playmates but did not know how to make friends with other little girls. The other youngsters avoided her because she talked funny. Owing to Katie’s nightly reading, Francie had a queer way for saying things. Once, when taunted by a youngster, she had retorted, “Aw, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re just full of sound and furry siggaflying nothing.” (13.9)

Do you know people who are outcast from their peers because they might be slightly advanced in their education? Why do you think this is?

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stores when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness with someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived. (22.3)

Through reading, Francie is able to fill any void she may feel in her life. Have you ever felt close to a character in a novel at a time when you otherwise felt completely alone?

Francie loved that school. It meant that she had to walk forty-eight blocks each day but she loved to walk, too […] It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable. (72-77)

Some people believe that traveling is often the best teacher. This is the case for Francie, even though she didn’t have to travel far to see a whole new world of opportunity—just over one neighborhood. Have you ever gone somewhere and been amazed by how differently some people live?

[Papa] had the same idea that Katie’s mother, Mary Rommely, had about education. He wanted to teach his children all that he knew so that at fourteen or fifteen, they would know as much as he knew at thirty. He figured they could go on from there picking up their own knowledge and, according to his calculations, when they reached thirty, they would be twice as smart as he had been at thirty. (25.3)

The Nolan children are surrounded by people who value education. Since Grandma, Mama, and Papa all value education, chances are good that they will pass this on to their children.

Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction. If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar. (26.34-35)

What’s the difference between a fiction writer and a liar? Turns out a writer just writes the lies instead. This little piece of advice is really huge for Francie.

An answer came to Katie. It was so simple that a flash of astonishment that felt like pain shot through her head. Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt […] Ah! That’s what Mary Rommely, her mother, had been telling her all those years. Only her mother did not have the one clear word: education!” (27.36)

This is Katie’s epiphany—that education is the way out of poverty. From this moment forth, Mama is even more adamant that the kids get through high school.

“…Maybe when she gets education, she will be ashamed of me—the way I talk.” (27.38)

Mama knows that education will lift them out of poverty, but will it also pull her children always from her? Just like how sometimes people with more education are outcast from their peers, does it also make them outcasts in their own families? It's a real testament to how much Mama loves her children that she recognizes education might pull them away from her, but she wants it for them anyway.

“With that money, our troubles would be over,” thought Francie. “We could pay rent on a three-bedroom flat somewhere, Mama wouldn’t have to go out to work and Laurie wouldn’t be left alone so much […]

“But I want to go back to school!” She recalled the constant harping on education in the family.

Granma: It will raise you up on the face of the earth.

Evy: Each of my three children will get three diplomas.

Sissy: And when Mother goes—pray God not for a long time yet—and baby is big enough to start kindergarten, I’m going out to work again. And I’ll bank my pay and when Little Sissy grows up, I’ll put her in the best college there is.

Mama: And I don’t want my children to have the same hardworking life I have. Education will fix it so that their lives are easier (44.79-85).

Francie’s promotion and raise temporarily make her question whether she should go back to school or not. But it is only for a split second, because she knows that school is the only way to make a good life for herself in the long run.

My grandparents never knew how to read or write. Those who came before them couldn’t read or write. My mother’s sister can’t read or write. My parents never even graduated from grade school. I never went to high school. But I, M. Frances K. Nolan, am now in college. Do you hear that, Francie? You’re in college (48.93).

She can’t believe it—she did it. The sense of accomplishment overwhelms her.

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