When Phil sees another kid wearing his brother's jacket, he assumes the jacket was stolen. It turns out he was wrong, and Phil has to ask himself the question: Would he have made the same assumption if the boy wearing the jacket hadn't been African American? And that question leads to others that reveal some unsettling truths about Phil's neighborhood, his family, and even himself.
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Part I: Collision Course
It was Thursday morning right before first period, and Phil was on a mission. Hurrying through the fourth- and fifth-grade hall, he waded through groups of younger kids. His little brother, Jimmy, had left the house early so he could ride to school with a friend, and he had left his lunch money on the kitchen counter.
Phil was tall for a sixth grader, so most of the younger kids got out of his way. Which was good, because he had no time to mess around. If he got one more tardy during December, he would have to serve two detentions. The pressure made Phil's imagination run at full throttle. Like, if I'm late for math today, then I might not be allowed to take the test and then I could flunk math! I might even flunk sixth grade and get left back! And when Mom and Dad yell at me, I'm gonna get so mad, 'cause, like, it's not even my fault! I'll say, "Hey, know what? Forget about school, that's what!" And I'll just drop out and turn into a bum or maybe even a criminal. My whole life's gonna be a mess, and it's all on account of my stupid little brother! Where is that punk?
Phil was about to stick his head into a classroom to look around. Then up at the corner of the hallway he thought he saw the back of his brother's jacket. It had to be Jimmy. No one else in the whole city had a jacket like that one.
He called, "Hey, Jimmy!" but his brother didn't stop, and Phil pushed his way forward and rushed around the corner. "Hey, idiot, you forgot..."
But it wasn't Jimmy. It was someone Phil had never seen before, a black kid. Wearing Jimmy's jacket.
Phil grabbed the collar and said, "Hey! This is my brother's jacket! Where is he? How'd you get this from him?"
The other boy struggled, trying to pull away. "What're you talkin' about? Let go of me! This is my jacket! I don't even know your brother!"
The kid twisted and turned to break free, but Phil was a lot bigger and stronger. "You tell me where my brother's at, or I'm gonna "
"Boys! You stop it, right now!" Mrs. Atkin came striding through the crowd that had gathered, pushing kids out of her way with her left hand and pointing at Phil with the other one. "You let go of him, and I mean it!"
Drawn by Mrs. Atkin's voice, three or four other teachers stepped out into the hallway.
Phil let go of the jacket, and the younger boy jerked around to face him, his fists up, his eyes narrowed.
Mrs. Atkin stepped between them and said to the younger boy, "Daniel, you put your hands down. And all the rest of you kids, go on about your business. Get your things put away and get to your rooms. Go on, there's nothing happening here." Then, glaring at Phil and the smaller boy, she said, "You two, come with me."
The other teachers were moving around in the hallway now, talking to kids, quieting everyone down.
Phil and Daniel followed Mrs. Atkin along the hall. And Phil knew where they were headed straight to the office. He thought, Now I'm gonna flunk out for sure.
At the office door Mrs. Atkin stopped and herded the boys in ahead of her. "Mrs. Cormier? Sorry to start your day like this, but I found these two going at it down in the fourth-grade hall. I've got to get back to my room before something else breaks loose."
The principal still had her coat on from being out at the curb with the buses. She frowned at the boys and pointed toward her office. "Walk in and sit down. And I don't want you two to even look at each other, is that clear?"
Both of them nodded and walked into her office.
A minute later Mrs. Cormier came in and sat down behind her desk. She motioned to Phil, who had taken a chair against the wall. "Come over here and sit in front of me. I want to be able to look each of you in the eye."
Daniel kept looking straight ahead at Mrs. Cormier. When Phil was seated, she said, "Phil, you've got no business being in the four-five hall in the morning. Why were you there?"
"My brother, Jimmy, forgot his lunch money. And I still have to give it to him."
Mrs. Cormier nodded. "All right, that makes sense. Here," she said, putting out her hand, "give me his money, and I'll make sure he gets it."
Phil dug in his pocket and gave the coins to the principal. She put them on her desk and then turned to the other boy. "Okay, Daniel, you first: What happened?"
"What happened is, I'm talking with my friends, and this kid comes and grabs me and starts yelling at me. I've never seen him before. I didn't do a thing!"
Mrs. Cormier turned to Phil. "Did you grab him, Phil?"
"Yeah, 'cause he stole my brother's jacket! That's my old jacket, and now it's my brother's, and this kid stole it, so I grabbed him."
"Liar!" Daniel jumped to his feet and faced Phil, his fists clenched. "I never stole a thing! My gramma gave me this jacket for my birthday, and that's the truth, so you stop saying that!"
"Daniel," said Mrs. Cormier sharply, "you sit down and stay put!" Mrs. Cormier swept her eyes between the boys. "I think this is a simple misunderstanding. Phil, isn't it possible that Daniel happens to have a jacket just like your brother's?"
Phil shook his head forcefully. "No way. My mom bought that jacket when she went to Italy, and she brought it back for me. Go ahead, look at the label inside the neck. It's gonna say 'Ricci di Roma.' That's because she got it in Rome. Go ahead and look. That's my jacket."
Mrs. Cormier stood up and walked around to the front of her desk. "May I look at the label, Daniel?"
He shrugged and stuck his lower lip out. "I don't care. 'Cause this isn't his jacket."
The principal gently pulled the collar of the jacket back, and then twisted her neck and adjusted her glasses. Her eyebrows shot up. "It says 'Ricci di Roma.'"
"See? I told you so," said Phil triumphantly. "He stole it!"
"Did not, you big liar!" And if Mrs. Cormier hadn't been on her feet to catch him, Daniel would have been on top of Phil, fists swinging. She pushed him back into his chair and shouted, "Silence! Not another word, either of you!" Calling to the secretary through the open door, she said, "Mrs. Donne? Get me the emergency cards for Philip Morelli and Daniel Taylor, would you right away."
Thirty seconds later Mrs. Cormier was dialing her phone, then smiling and speaking. "Mrs. Taylor? This is Mrs. Cormier, the principal at Daniel's school....No, he's fine, but there's been a disagreement this morning, and he's in the middle of it. It's about a jacket, the one Daniel says he got for his birthday. Another boy is here, and he says the jacket belongs to him. Can you tell me anything else that might help?...Yes....Oh. I see....So it was a gift....Yes, I see. Well, that's it, then. I'm awfully sorry to have bothered you....Yes, you too. Good-bye."
Daniel turned to Phil. "See? I told you so. It was a gift for me."
Mrs. Cormier said, "It turns out you're both right, boys. Someone gave that jacket to your grandmother, Daniel, and then she gave it to you."
Phil made a face. "Gave it to his grandmother? How come?"
Mrs. Cormier started to say something, then stopped, smiled awkwardly, and said, "Well, really, I...I think it was just...to be kind. That's all."
Something registered in Phil's mind, and his mouth dropped open. Turning to Daniel, he asked, "Who's your grandma? What's her name?"
Daniel curled his lip. "None of your business. But her name's Lucy. Lucy Taylor."
Phil's face reddened. "Hey, look. I'm sorry I grabbed you, okay? You're right. It's your jacket."
"What?" Daniel looked sideways at Phil, cocking his head as if he hadn't heard clearly. "You come and almost pull this thing off my back, and now you say just keep it? What's that about?"
Phil looked at the floor. "It's just that...like, I think I know your grandma that's all. So the jacket's yours."
Daniel frowned and narrowed his eyes. "You? Know my gramma? Right!" He smiled, taunting Phil. "Yeah, like, how you gonna know my gramma? Maybe you see her when you go to the same beauty parlor she does, huh? That it?"
Mrs. Cormier stood up and said, "Boys, that's enough. This is all settled. Daniel, Phil said he's sorry, and we know the jacket is yours. So both of you run along to class now. Mrs. Donne will give you notes for your teachers."
Daniel stood up. He stuck his chin out and said, "Fine with me. Because this boy just keeps telling lies and lies. Like how he knows my gramma."
"I do too know her!" Phil almost shouted. "I'm not a liar! I see her all the time because...because she's my mom's cleaning lady!"
The words seemed to echo off the walls.
Daniel looked like he'd been punched in the stomach. He backed toward the office door, his face working angrily. He yanked the jacket open, pulled himself free of it, and threw it on the floor at Phil's feet. "There's your jacket! You take it and you tell yo' momma that my gramma and me don't need nobody being kind to us!" And looking at Mrs. Cormier, he snarled, "Nobody!"
Text copyright © 2002 by Andrew Clements
Reading Group Guide
What's your opinion of how the principal solved the problem between the boys? What would you have done if you'd been the principal? How are conflicts handled in your school? Do you agree with the rules and policies in your school? Why or why not?
Why do you think Phil got so angry when he saw Daniel wearing his brother's jacket? If you were Phil in this story, how would you have reacted when you saw someone wearing your brother's jacket? What would you have done in Daniel's shoes?
Phil thinks "being friends with everyone and being someone's friend are two different things." Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? Describe someone who's your friend. Describe someone who's an acquaintance. What is the same/different about these two people? What makes someone a friend?
Phil wonders how he would have treated Daniel had he been white. Do you think Phil is prejudiced? Why or why not? What does it mean to be prejudiced? Use specific events from the story to support your opinion. How does Phil grow and change as a character from his experiences in this story? What kinds of life lessons does he learn?
Do you think Phil's mom could be prejudiced? Why or why not? What's your opinion about the way that Phil's mom answered his questions about being prejudiced?
Phil's father has some strong feelings about black people in sports. Reread the conversation Phil has with his father about this. What is your opinion? Do you think, "it's all about the black guys"? Why?
Phil realizes that he never knew black kids could live in neighborhoods like his own. He's not sure if he should feel good about this or not. Why? Before reading this story how did you think people of other races lived? What experiences have you had to give you this knowledge?
Activities and Research
Research people who have fought for civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Make a list of these influential people in history. Pick one and write a biography describing the struggles and hardships he/she faced. Share your biography with the class.
While riding the bus, Phil wonders what it would be like for Daniel to ride on his bus. What would it be like for someone of a different race to ride on your school bus? Research Rosa Parks. What experience did she have with riding a bus? If you had been in Rosa Parks' shoes, do you think you could have been as courageous as she was?
In The Jacket, Phil is dealing with some internal struggles regarding his own ideas about racism. Think of another book that you've read where the main character is also dealing with internal struggles. Compare and contrast these two characters and the issues they are facing.
Continue this story and write the next chapter of The Jacket.
Draw or find a picture of a jacket. Write on it, or attach to it, words that come to mind when you think of the story you've just read. Include words that show your opinion of the story and the message it sends to its readers. Display the jackets on a clothesline in your classroom.
Pretend you are a reporter writing a news article about what has happened between Phil and Daniel and the jacket. Give your article a headline. Organize your facts as they would be in a news story with the most important facts listed first and then the supporting details.