The clock showed 2:25 and that meant every student in the class was poised to leave. Yet, each of them had to look busy, as if they had no sense how close the bell was to ringing. They each had to secretly position books and back packs in away that didn’t betray that all they were thinking about was the steady swish of the red second hand over the white field, by the long and short black hashes and the big hand and the little hand.
He wasn’t thinking about the three handed thing dancing on the wall, he was obsessed with the black squiggles on the white page in front of him. More than that, he was perplexed by the sticker on his paper, otherwise unmarked but for the words, “Outstanding work!” in loopy red pen. The sticker was a pick cartoon hippopotamus with stars and the words “You’re the best.”
The bell rang, and the class emptied out. There were buses to be caught. He’d walk home. It wasn’t long before he was alone with the teacher, she sat at her desk and he sat at his.
“Everything ok?,” she asked.
He stood up and walked toward her.
“What does this mean?” he asked pointing to the sticker.
He had spent part of the summer on a long road trip with his father driving across the country to Washington DC. They stopped, at his request, at every roadside museum and historical marker he saw. His father was patient, even encouraging of his son’s interest not in the world’s biggest ball of twine or the tallest roller coaster, but presidential libraries and obscure burial monuments.
“Well, that means you did a great job on this paper,” she said, knowing as good teachers do that this was an important moment.
He’d started that year to shift away from fretting against the daily discomforts of childhood, the powerlessness, the friction of the seemingly arbitrary fiats of adults and toward fantasies about the future. And not just the future, but seeing himself in the future.
“But what job did I do?” he asked with 10 year old honestly.
“You are a really good writer,” she said.
“Writer?” he said. “My handwriting is bad. All I know how to write is, ‘I will not disturb 7th period study hall. I will not disturb 7th period study hall. I will not….”
“Not your handwriting,” she interrupted. “It’s what you wrote about chapter 3.”
When I read chapter 3 of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath I see several themes. The best way to explain these is to look at the chapter paragraph by paragraph. At the end, Steinbeck creates what is almost a poem that in fewer words expresses the point of his much longer book.
In paragraph one we see passive potential. In this paragraph the author spends his words on “sleeping life waiting to be spread.” The seeds he describes are just laying around and passive but they have potential for life if they get picked up and dispersed. He says they are “all passive but armed” and he uses the word “appliances” twice to describe the seeds. He also uses the word “anlage,” an unusual word that means “embryonic.”
I’m the second paragraph is the theme of the paradox of progress. The turtle appears, struggling along, frustrated here and there by obstacles. Here we see that the turtle does not give up and we see how his motion runs up against things that are immovable like the embankment. Steinbeck uses opposites in his language describing the turtles “humorous frowning eyes” putting two opposites together. Progress Steinbeck is saying happens up against hard objects and opposition.
The third paragraph and fourth paragraph use opposites too. The theme here is that in life, progress is helped or harmed by other people. In paragraph three, a woman in a sedan helps the turtle by avoiding him. In the fourth paragraph a man in a truck tries to squash him. Tom Joad earlier gets help from a man in a truck. So Steinbeck is using opposites to make the point that life is unpredictable but persistence in the end will prevail.
In conclusion, all this drama with the turtle means new life. At the end of the book Rose of Sharon saves a mans life even though her own baby is dead and all along their trip people have died. This is like the oat seed being planted and her smile is like when the turtle’s “horny beak opened a little.” Steinbeck’s message is that in the end even though life is full of suffering, life progresses and thrives in unusual and unpredictable ways.
“Who’s that?” he pointed to two black and white pictures torn in half on her desk.
“Oh that’s Sam, my husband,” she said. “It’s for his book. He’s a professor at the university. He was getting in my nerves.”
He walked home with the paper folded in a square in his pocket. He didn’t share it with anyone. He kept thinking about the picture. He kept imaging it was a picture of himself, years ahead, torn in half on that desk.
“How was school today?” his mother asked. “Anything new.”
“Nope,” he answered.
That night as a fight broke out between them and he heard things breaking and the screaming, he used the light from his calculator watch, under the covers and looked at the paper again.
“What was work?” he honestly wondered. He jumped out of bed and loosened the lock on the window. He checked that his door was locked. He always wore socks to bed.
His stepfather had a gun in the garage, and he always had a plan to get out through the window. If the fight got bad enough, he figured he’d have enough time to get up and out the window. He’d timed it all out. He practiced. He made sure he had the paper tucked in his underwear. He’d take it with him for sure.