Study Guide

Bridge to Terabithia Society and Class

By Katherine Paterson

Society and Class

He didn't worry about a shirt because once he began running he would be hot as popping grease even if the morning air was chill, or shoes because the bottoms of his feet were by now as tough as his worn-out sneakers. (1.1)

This tells us about both the kind of person Jess is and how much money his family has (or, rather, doesn't have). He's determined and doesn't care about how he looks. His family hardly has any money at all. Just consider the fact that he's practicing running in bare feet, perhaps because his "sneakers" are "worn-out," and his feet are just "as tough" as they are.

Lark Creek Elementary was short on everything, especially athletic equipment, so all the balls went to the upper grades at recess time after lunch. Even if a fifth grader started out the period with a ball, it was sure to be in the hands of a sixth or seventh grader before the hour was half over. (1.17)

Even in areas that are already marked out according to class structure – this elementary school doesn't have much money or resources – people still set up their own internal class differences. The elementary school has a miniature class system in which the sixth and seventh graders are superior to the fifth graders, who are then superior to the students in fourth grade and under. In other words, even when you barely have anything, there's still a chance that it can be taken away from you. No wonder Terabithia is so appealing.

But Jess knew what fakes they were. Sniffing "hippie" and "peacenik," even though the Vietnam War was over and it was supposed to be OK again to like peace, the kids would make fun of Miss Edmunds' lack of lipstick or the cut of her jeans. She was, of course, the only female teacher anyone had ever seen in Lark Creek Elementary wearing pants. In Washington and its fancy suburbs, even in Millsburg, that was OK, but Lark Creek was the backwash of fashion. (2.20)

People in Lark Creek are behind the times and don't approve of women who don't wear makeup but do wear jeans. Yet, today, we wouldn't give someone dressed like Miss Edmunds a second thought. Lots of women go out with jeans and with no makeup. No judgment. But the people in Lark Creek really do judge. This shows how much times can change in just a little over thirty years.

Leslie was still dressed in the faded cutoffs and the blue undershirt. She had sneakers on her feet but no socks. Surprise swooshed up from the class like steam from a released radiator cap. They were all sitting there primly dressed in their spring Sunday best. (3.2)

Even though Leslie's family probably has more money than any of the other families in town, that doesn't mean she automatically stands out in a good way. Wealth doesn't guarantee familiarity with new customs or help you fit in with new friends. How would Leslie have known to wear her "Sunday best" to school, especially when, as we learn later, she doesn't even go to church?

"My parents are reassessing their value structure."

"Huh?"

"They decided they were too hooked on money and success, so they bought that old farm and they're going to farm it and think about what's important." (4.25-27)

Of course, having the ability to "reassess […] value structure" means having enough money to do so without stressing about putting a roof over your head or food on the table. Because the Burkes have enough money, they can take time to "think about" things that matter, like values, morals, and aesthetics. We wonder if this is a little bit naïve of Leslie's parents because unless they keep providing their family with a certain amount of money and success, they won't have the luxury of working on their "value[s]."

They didn't look like Jess's idea of rich, but even he could tell that the jeans they wore had not come off the counter at Newberry's. There was no TV at the Burkes', but there were mountains of records and a stereo set that looked like something off Star Trek. And although their car was small and dusty, it was Italian and looked expensive, too. (4.135)

It's not just about having money, it's about what you do with it. The Burkes don't flaunt their wealth, but they have nice things, and they're able to express their value system through their purchases. They fill their home with music, books, and art, and although they don't appear stereotypically "rich," they're clearly rich in other ways. (In comparison, with as little money as Jess's family has, they still have a TV, but artistic pursuits are not encouraged in that house.)

His mother always cried poor, but she put a lot of thought and as much money as she could scrape together into making sure she wouldn't be embarrassed by how her family looked. But the day before she planned to take them all over to Millsburg Plaza for new clothes, his dad came home from Washington early. He'd been laid off. No new clothes this year. (8.2)

Imagine only getting new clothes once a year, and then not being able to get them at all. The description of this situation helps us feel more sympathetic to Jess's parents. We can understand his mom's short temper and strain a bit better when we learn about how she does try to get her family looking nice at least once a year, and how much effort even that takes. The timing of Jess's father losing his job is particularly cruel – the money that was saved for new clothes and freshness has to be turned over to living expenses.

When she mentioned lunch, he realized with horror that he would need money, and he didn't know how to tell her that he hadn't brought any – didn't have any to bring, for that matter. (10.57)

Jess was so excited to go on this trip at all that it didn't occur to him to have asked for money. But he "didn't have any," anyway. So even if he'd thought about it, the only outcome would've been saying he might not be able to go because he couldn't afford it. Luckily, Miss Edmunds is gracious enough to take him to lunch as part of their day out together, and Jess is spared any further embarrassment.

Jess and his dad helped them load the U-Haul, and noontime his mother brought down ham sandwiches and coffee, a little scared the Burkes wouldn't want to eat her food, but needing, Jess knew, to do something. (13.64)

Although the Aarons and the Burke families move in different circles – and the fact that Leslie and Jess were friends was most unusual – they're still kind to each other during times of trouble. Even though Jess's mom is worried the Burkes will disdain the refreshments she can provide, she still feels the "need" to provide them.

It also helped to know some things that Bill for all his brains and books didn't know. Jess found he was really useful to him, not a nuisance to be tolerated or set out on the porch like P.T. (7.19)

So, money can't buy everything, and having a formal education doesn't teach you everything either. Jess is glad to discover that even though he feels so inferior to Bill in terms of education and smartness, he still has some knowledge that is valuable. It's important to Jess to be seen as "useful," and sad for us to see him worry that he'll be evaluated as "a nuisance" like a pet dog.

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