This article starts with a summary, then looks at a theme and some questions.
Summary of “The Scholarship Jacket”
The narrator, Martha, is nearing the end of eighth grade at her Texas school. Every year at graduation, the school awards a beautiful jacket monogrammed with an “S” and the winner’s name to the class valedictorian, the student with the highest grades over eight years. Martha’s older sister Rosie won it years earlier. Martha is going to win it this year.
She lives with her grandparents. Her parents couldn’t afford to raise all their kids. Martha is very thin. She’s not happy with her appearance but she’s smart.
One day at the end of the school year, Martha has to go back to her classroom to get her shorts for gym class. Hearing raised voices inside, she stops outside the door. Two of her teachers are arguing about her. She’s shocked and stands there listening.
Mr. Schmidt is saying he refuses to do something, that it doesn’t matter who her father is, that Martha is the clear winner. Mr. Boone says Joann’s father is on the Board, owns the only store in town, and that they could make some excuse. She also hears mention of her Mexican background and a threat about resigning.
Mr. Schmidt storms out but doesn’t notice Martha. She waits until she calms down and goes into the classroom to get her bag. She can’t remember the rest of the day.
Martha cries quietly that night. The next day, she’s called to the principal’s office. He looks uncomfortable. He tells Martha the policy has changed this year—there will now be a $15 charge for the scholarship jacket. If she can’t pay, the next in line will get the jacket. She says she’ll tell her grandfather and get back to him. She cries on the way home.
Martha goes into the bean field to find her Grandpa. She explains the situation. He asks what the scholarship jacket means. She says it’s given to the student who earns it. They both understand. Before she leaves he says if it’s paid for it’s not a scholarship jacket. She’s angry but knows Grandpa is right.
Martha is sad the next day when she goes to see the principal. She tells him her grandfather won’t pay. He asks why, because he has enough money. She explains the reason. She adds that they’ll have to give the jacket to Joann.
The principal stops her before she leaves. He says they’ll make an exception and give her the jacket. Martha is very happy and thanks him.
When she sees Mr. Schmidt later he acknowledges her accomplishment. She hugs him.
Martha cries with happiness on the way home. She rushes to the field to tell her grandfather. She ends up working with him a few minutes first, then gives him the good news. He pats her on the shoulder and wipes the sweat off his forehead. He tells her to see if her grandmother needs help with supper.
Martha smiles at him. She’s not fooled. She runs happily to the house.
Theme: Doing the Right Thing
There are three characters who take a principled stand for what is right—Mr. Schmidt, Grandpa and finally, Martha.
We first learn of the plot against Martha when she overhears the argument between Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Boone. Mr. Schmidt is adamant in his refusal to cheat Martha out of her prize. He doesn’t care who Joann’s father is. He recognizes the injustice of trying to take what Martha earned because she’s an easy target, being Mexican and from a poor family. He threatens to resign over it.
The next character who recognizes the greater issue is Grandpa. He points it out to Martha by asking her the significance of the scholarship jacket—it’s earned and it’s given. The question isn’t whether he can pay the money or not, it’s whether it should be paid at all.
The answer is no. Paying for the scholarship jacket goes against everything it represents. Paying for the jacket wouldn’t right the wrong that is being done.
At first, Martha doesn’t understand the larger principle at play here. When she tells Grandpa she’s in danger of losing her prize, she’s “desperately hoping he’d say [she] could have the money.” On the surface, this makes sense. She’s earned this prize and doesn’t want to see it go to someone else.
After the conversation with Grandpa, she knows he’s right. She’s still angry and sad, but she understands that paying for something that’s been earned doesn’t make sense.
1. What does Martha mean when she says, “Those were the days of belief and innocence”?
During the course of the story, Martha doesn’t fully understand the scheming against her. The older Martha who’s telling the story does.
When Martha was called to the principal’s office, she “knew what it would be about.” After he tells her the Board changed its policy and the jacket would cost fifteen dollars, she’s shocked and says she hadn’t expected that. This is because she was expecting to be told the jacket was being given to Joann.
Martha doesn’t realize that she is being told what she expected, it’s just not being delivered in the way she expected. The principal can’t just directly tell Martha that the school is going to show favoritism to a girl with an important father.
Related to this are Martha’s feelings after Grandpa turns down her request. She “was angry with the Board . . . Why did they have to change the rules just when it was my turn to win the jacket? Those were the days of belief and innocence.”
A more mature Martha refers to “days of belief and innocence” because now she understands fully. The Board didn’t change any rules and the jacket didn’t really cost fifteen dollars. That was simply the cover story she was given to hide the conspiracy against her.
2. Why does the principal reverse the decision and award the jacket to Martha?
The principal’s guilt seems to get the best of him.
When he first talked to Martha, he “looked uncomfortable and unhappy”, wouldn’t look her in the eyes and fidgeted with his papers. He knew he was doing something wrong, but he was still willing to go ahead with it, at this point.
He changes his mind right after Martha says “I guess you’ll just have to give it to Joann.” When Martha reveals that she knows they want Joann to get it, the principal doesn’t have the boldness to go on. With the plot exposed, his embarrassment seems to move him to save face and make things right. (see next question)
3. What if Grandpa has simply paid the money? Wouldn’t the principal’s plot have been ruined anyway?
Yes, it would have, but the principal was aware of this because he said to Martha, “Your grandfather has the money.” He knew her family could afford the fifteen dollars.
This tells us the plot against Martha was more subtle than it first appeared. The principal seemed to know that her grandfather wouldn’t pay. Then, the jacket could have been awarded to Joann, whose family would have paid. Everything would have looked fair enough. When Martha says, “. . . you’ll just have to give it to Joann”, she reveal that she knows he wants to cheat her out of her prize. This breaks through the facade, and the principal breaks as well.
4. At the end of the story, what does it mean when Martha is “not fooled” when Grandpa sends her into the house?
It’s likely that Grandpa sends Martha away so quickly because he doesn’t want her to see how emotionally affected he is.
Just before dismissing her, he took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He might have taken it out to dry his tears. Even if this interpretation is taking it too far, it seems reasonable that Martha’s not being fooled refers to Grandpa’s feelings. He didn’t say anything, but gave her a pat on the shoulder and smiled. Martha knows he feels happier for her than he’s willing to show.