Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Education

By Sherman Alexie


Chapter 2

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor. (2.54)

Arnold argues that adverse circumstances (poverty, for example) really don't teach you much of anything. At least, not anything good. The only kind of education you'll receive from being poor, Arnold suggests, is how to keep on being poor.

Chapter 4

My school and my tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from. That is absolutely saddest thing in the world.

And let me tell you, that old, old, old decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you? (4.57-4.58)

Education is one of the most important factors in any kid's life. But what happens when you realize that your school has been using the same books for over thirty years? Would your attitude about education change? How? Why does knowing that his school can't buy new books have the effect of a nuclear bomb on Arnold?

Chapter 5
Mr. P

"When I first started teaching here, that's what we did to the rowdy ones, you know? We beat them. That's how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child."

"You killed Indians?"

"No, no, it's just a saying. I didn't literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture." (5.40-5.42)

Mr. P reveals that his teacher training was focused on stamping out the children's Native American culture (songs, stories, language, and dancing). This also included violence, such as beatings. Why do you think the white teachers thought all of this was necessary? How does Arnold react to Mr. P's revelation?

"You were right to throw that book at me. I deserved to get smashed in the face for what I've done to Indians. Every white person on this rez should get smashed in the face. But, let me tell you this. All the Indians should get smashed in the face, too."

I was shocked. Mr. P was furious.

"The only thing you kids are being taught is how to give up." (5.149-5.151)

Mr. P blames himself for failing the kids, but he also blames the families of the children. Mr. P is upset because he believes the kids are being taught to give up at school and at home.

Chapter 12

"There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here," Gordy said. "I know that because I counted them."

"Okay, now you're officially a freak," I said.

"Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish."

"What's your point?"

"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."

Wow. That was a huge idea.

Any town, even one as small as Reardan, was a place of mystery. And that meant Wellpinit, that smaller, Indian town, was also a place of mystery. (12.199-12.205)

Gordy, the boy genius and resident know-it-all, takes it upon himself to expand Arnold's ideas about knowledge. By taking him the library, Gordy shows Arnold just how much there is in the world that he doesn't know. The world becomes a huge place filled with knowledge, with mystery, and with things to learn.

"Listen," he said one afternoon in the library. "You have to read a book three times before you know it. The first time you read it for the story. The plot. The movement from scene to scene that gives the book its momentum, its rhythm. It's like riding a raft down a river. You're just paying attention to the currents. Do you understand that?"

"Not at all," I said.

"Yes, you do," he said.

"Okay, I do," I said. I really didn't, but Gordy believed in me. He wouldn't let me give up. (12.174-12.177)

In this scene Gordy is teaching Arnold how to read a book. What are the other steps Gordy describes? What is the difference between Gordy as a teacher and Mr. P as a teacher? Why is it so significant that Gordy believes in Arnold?

Arnold Spirit, Junior

"A metaphorical boner!" I shouted. "What the heck is a metaphorical boner?"

Gordy laughed.

"When I say boner, I really mean joy," he said.

"Then why didn't you say joy? You didn't have to say boner. Whenever I think about boners, I get confused."

"Boner is funnier. And more joyful."

Gordy and I laughed.

He was an extremely weird dude. But he was the smartest person I'd ever known. He would always be the smartest person I'd ever known. (12.211-12.217)

One of the most important things that Arnold learns from Gordy is that learning and knowledge and reading and books should bring you a whole big bunch of joy. So much joy, in fact, that the only way that Gordy knows how to describe the feeling is by calling it a "boner." Why is the idea of joy so important for this book?

Chapter 16

"Hey Arnold," he said. "I looked up 'in love with a white girl' on Google and found an article about that white girl named Cynthia who disappeared in Mexico last summer. You remember how her face was all over the papers and everybody said it was such a sad thing?"

"I kinda remember," I said.

"Well, this article said that over two hundred Mexican girls have disappeared in the last three years in that same part of the country. And nobody says much about that. And that's racist. The guy who wrote the article says people care more about beautiful white girls than they do about everybody else on the planet. White girls are privileged. They're damsels in distress." (16.24-16.26)

Needing relationship advice, Arnold asks Gordy about his semi-relationship with the beautiful Penelope. Gordy's response is analytical: he presents Arnold with a Google-searched article that discusses the preference given to white women by Western society. In his own nerdy way, Gordy teaches Arnold about the larger inequalities in the world and how even our personal desires can be influenced by them.

Chapter 20
Mr. and Mrs. Spirit

"Your mother was thirteen and I was five when we first met. And guess how we first met?"


"She helped me get a drink from a water fountain."

"Well, that just seems sort of gross," I said.

"I was tiny," Dad said. "And she boosted me up so I could get a drink. And imagine, all these years later and we're married and have two kids."

"What does this have to do with basketball?"

"You have to dream big to get big."

"That's pretty dang optimistic of you, Dad."

"Well, you know, our mother helped me get a drink from the water fountain last night, if you know what I mean." (20.9-20.17)

Though Arnold's family has their fair share of problems, his Dad is always encouraging. Here he tries to teach his son about the importance of dreaming big. What else does Arnold learn from his family?


"So, anyway," he said. "I was reading this book about old-time Indians, about how we used to be nomadic."

"Yeah," I said.

"So I looked up nomadic in the dictionary, and it means people who move around, who keep moving, in search of food and water and grazing land."

"That sounds about right."

"Well, the thing is, I don't think Indians are nomadic anymore. Most Indians, anyway."

"No, we're not," I said.

"I'm not nomadic," Rowdy said. "Hardly anybody on this rez is nomadic. Except for you. You're the nomadic one."

"Whatever." (30.176-30.183)

Surprise, surprise: Rowdy actually teaches Arnold – and himself – something in this passage. Here Rowdy explains to Arnold the meaning of the word "nomad." Why is this word so important for the two of them?