The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself. The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master. From the Trade Paperback edition.
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CHAPTER 1: CLASS PICTURE
You can use the Define tool in this curriculet to look up the meaning of words. Simply click on any word and select Define to bring up a list of definitions for most words.
What gives a student at this school the MOST distinction among his peers and teachers?
Old School fits into several categories of literature, but the two most obvious are that it's a Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age tale), such as Great Expectations and The Giver, and it's also an early form of teenage literature, more specifically a prep-school story, like Dead Poets' Society and Harry Potter.
Why does the narrator MOST likely dedicate much of the first chapter to talking about authors?
Because the story is told in first person, we have an intimate view of the narrator's mind. This also gives us privileged access to his internal conflict(s), such as this obvious one in which he wants to win a competition so badly that he sizes up his competition in the author's writing contest. You can learn more about types of conflict below by watching this video. As you read on, we will look specifically at how the narrator's response to conflict provides insight into his own character development. (This annotation contains a video)
What can you infer about the narrator based on his response to discovering that Bill is Jewish?
What is the most important thing to a young boy at this school? Our narrator explains that the context he lives in values "character and deed" above all else. Money. Women. None of these things were as important as what a person did with himself while at school and who that person became. By the narrator admitting this, he is telling us what his central conflict really is--proving his character and worth as an individual. This concept is found in many of works of literature and cultures. We call it the rite of passage. Does this seem to be the narrator's main focus, though?
How does this incident with Gershon MOST affect our young narrator?
To understand this statement, you must know who Caesar and Ovid were. Caesar was a famous ruler of the Roman world. Like a president to that great empire. Ovid was a Greek poet. He preceded Caesar, and his poems were the most famous and translated of his day. What do you think Ovid's poetry did to Caesar that made him (and our narrator) feel so exposed? (Hint: poetry has the power to transmit truth).
CHAPTER 2: ON FIRE
What is the general tone the narrator conveys towards his own literary talents and stories when he describes them to the readers?
Take a moment and think about the narrator's decision at the end of this chapter. He wrote an inspired short story, felt its deep connection to his own personal life, and then decided to submit his poem that he was very skeptical of when he wrote it. This story is about the narrator being true to himself, living out his true identity, but he makes a choice that does not resonate with who he really is. How do you think this small decision will affect him?
CHAPTER 3: FROST
Robert Frost was a legend in his own time. As an American poet in the early 20th century, he wrote poetry about his rural life in New England. His poems were best known for the way he intertwined descriptions of nature with deeper moral and spiritual truths. He is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
Burlesque is a form of satire in which serious subject is treated in a joking fashion or a common subject is treated with mock-praise. In this instance, Robert Frost, who considers himself ordinary, is treated with unnecessary praise. This is what George means when he says "homage."
The narrator relates a long anecdote about George and focuses on George's admission that he felt erotically about the girl in his poem. Why does our narrator MOST likely add his own quote to his final thought about this anecdote?
There are several important themes in this story, and many of them emerge suddenly--others gradually unfold and you know they are there. The highlighted passage conveys the theme of the influence of art. Think about what message the narrator, author, and characters are saying about the power of art. Also, watch the video below because it explains how themes emerge and the impact these themes have on other elements in the story. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the narrator's overall account of Robert Frost in this chapter, what seems to be this poet's main focus in life?
Ayn Rand was a famous Russian novelist, who is best known for her works Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead. She was a proponent of a objectivism, a philosophy that she created which stressed the use of rational thought as the basis for making decisions. She also wrote stories with characters who demonstrated a strong degree of ethical egotism--the belief that choices made in one's own self-interest (not in the best interest of others) were the only morally good choices one could make. She was a polarizing figure, even in her day, and her works have been critically received by many other authors and critics. Her stories, however, have earned a place among the greatest works of English literature. (This annotation contains an image)
This conversation between the adults shows the same pretentiousness that our narrator displays. People are pretentious in how they talk about what they know and what they think, but in reality they really hide under a veil that covers an overwhelming sense of lack of identity. People don't know who they really are.
Part I Quiz
CHAPTER 4: ÜBERMENSCH
The introduction of Rain exposes our character's vulnerability. He seems very confident about school, his writing ability, and his friendships, but this girl shows us that he knows he doesn't have it all figured out. Because this novel focuses on identity it's important to ask: How do you think he will present himself to her?
Why does the author MOST likely include long passages about how the narrator interprets and imagines himself within certain stories?
It's slightly disturbing to hear the condescending way our narrator talks and thinks about other people. Inspired by Ayn Rand's character, Roark, he epitomizes the man who wills himself to be different. This high sense of nonconformity is changing our narrator. He mocks the shoe salesman. and questions the actions of his grandparents. Literature is meant to inspire, but do you think he is taking it to an extreme?
Which of the following is the greatest mistake the narrator makes in order to achieve his writing goals?
As we follow the narrator's progress in dealing with the conflict that is most concerning to him--winning the writer's contest--this unexpected illness deals him a sharp blow. This is an example of situational irony (watch the video to learn more) because there is a sudden reversal of fortune for the narrator. What affect do you think this event will have on him? (This annotation contains a video)
How does Jeff's win MOST likely make the narrator feel about himself?
Just as Frost conveyed a theme through his character, so does Ayn Rand in this chapter. Unlike Frost, though, who preached a moral obligation to fellow man and a sympathetic view of human nature, Ann Rand preaches rugged individualism and selfishness as virtues. As all of these philosophies swirl around in the narrator's mind, think about how he will respond to the inspiration of his most recent literary guest.
Which of the following is the overall impression the narrator presents of the Russian novelist, Ayn Rand?
CHAPTER 5: SLICE OF LIFE
Which of the following states the overall effect that Ayn Rand's lecture and question and answer session have on the narrator?
The image below was used on another cover of this same book. Compare and contrast this image with the one used for this curriculet. Answer the question that follows. (This annotation contains an image)
What seems to be the focus of both cover photos for Old School?
As the young narrator explains what he likes about Hemingway, he suggests that he does not prefer to be pretentious. In fact, he associates more with Hemingway's wounded, down-to-earth heroes, and even Hemingway himself, who all lead difficult lives. As you wonder how the narrator has changed so far, it helps to think about why he rejects Rand so strongly and accepts Hemingway so adamantly. What is it about Hemingway that he gravitates toward? How do you think this helps him accomplish his goals?
Ernest Hemingway, like Robert Frost, was also a legend in his own time. His writing differed from Frost's, though, in that it reflected settings and events much more global than Frost's poetry. Hemingway hunted in foreign countries, hung out with well-known artists, like James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and covered major wars around the world. He is known for his "code-hero," a reoccurring character in his stories who lived by an unspoken code of honor in his actions and thoughts, valuing self-sacrifice and determination above all else. A picture of Hemingway is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the MAIN reason the narrator feels so confident that he will win the next contest?
CHAPTER 6: THE FORKED TONGUE
Although the narrator does not state it directly, you can infer that Purcell's behavior is in response to the empowerment he felt from Ayn Rand, who strongly detested religion. Her atheism inspired Purcell, and like the narrator, these young boys show how vulnerable they are to the impressions of famous authors. If someone is so impressionable what does that tell you about his identity?
Which theme do the narrator's words in this highlighted passage BEST convey?
Why does the narrator work so hard to appear like a "picture of careless gentility"?
The narrator seems to be echoing the words, "Be careful what you wish for!" His obsession with becoming a great writer has made him a poser and a liar. His worst fear before was not being recognized as a good writer, and now his greatest fear is being discovered as a phony. How do you think he is going to resolve this conflict?
Which of the following does the narrator's daydream MOST suggest?
It is human nature to not want to hide in shame. However, instead of bravely admitting his struggles, his identity, and his goals, the narrator is scared by how much he wants to be rid of all this pretending. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt so compelled to tell the truth just to get it off your chest?
The narrator has changed throughout this story, and we've highlighted some of those changes and what has caused them. The video below talks about the interplay between themes, the setting, and other elements that influence how characters change. Watch the video and then answer the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
Why does this event with the Troubadour create a conflict within the narrator?
Part II Quiz
CHAPTER 7: WHEN IN DISGRACE WITH FORTUNE
Well, it seems that the narrator gets exactly what he wanted--a spot in the limelight and recognition that he has pure genius. Notice how Mr. Ramsey gives him the exact compliments he wanted to hear. This is definitely an example of irony, because the readers know what Mr. Ramsey does not--that the narrator is a fraud!
What does the author MOST likely hope to accomplish in this passage?
Which of the following does the highlighted comment reveal about the narrator?
Bill is upset because he is also Jewish, hid this from his classmates, and yet it is the narrator who comes out first and gets credit for being brave. Interestingly, the narrator still does not disclose that he is Jewish, too. Why is he still holding on to that lie? Does it have anything to do with his concept of honor?
Which of the following does the highlighted passage surprisingly indicate about the narrator?
This is a particularly poignant part of the story. The young protagonist finds himself finally free from pretending. It came at a great cost--his expulsion for plagiarizing--but the entire story you've read about him has been him living in a false reality, one where he cared more about being a respected writer than having character. Can you think of a time in your life when you wanted something so badly you sacrificed your character to get it?
Why is the word "honor" looked at so skeptically by Mr. Ramsey?
Which moral lesson do the narrator's actions in this chapter BEST convey?
CHAPTER 8: ONE FOR THE BOOKS
If there ever was an example of a tragic situational irony, this is it. The narrator obsessed so much about winning a chance to meet Hemingway that he plagiarized a paper, and even convinced himself, somewhat, that it was his own work, only to find out that Hemingway never showed up anyways.
What impression does the narrator's tone give us of him in the first few passages of this chapter?
Another ironic twist in this story is that Susan's work, which inspired the narrator to be truthful for once, could have been fictionalized--not an autobiographical account like he thought. He believed Susan was brave to tell the truth. Now he's left not knowing if she did or not. It's also important to note how much stock he still puts in becoming an author. She shocks him when she tells him that being an author is a worthless profession. It seems like his concept of honor is more and more vague as he grows up.
Which theme does the narrator want us to catch when he talks about writing?
CHAPTER 9: BULLETIN
The prodigal son is a parable told by Jesus about a young man who asks for his inheritance, leaves home, squanders his wealth, and returns with shame only to be accepted graciously by his grieving father. The narrator wonders if anyone there is glad that he has turned a new leaf over.
Which of the following is the real reason the narrator does not return to his old school?
Which word BEST captures the tone that the narrator uses as he describes the feelings he has while sitting here with teachers from his former school?
CHAPTER 10: MASTER
Recall that one of the central themes in this story is the nature of truths and lies. Dean Makepeace is naturally quiet about his war experiences. This requires that others fill in the blanks, so to speak, and speculate what happened to him and why he is so quiet. Is this a lie?
Dean Makepeace also failed to deny his relationship to Hemingway. By not clarifying for the boys at his school when they asked him questions, they believed that he knew Hemingway. Notice why Dean Makepeace lets them continue to believe this lie. How is this similar to the narrator's motives for lying?
Which of the following is the GREATEST advantage that Dean Makepeace's lie has for him?
Although the narrator recovers from his obsession with winning this contest, his expulsion from school, and his wandering years as a young adult, one can't help wonder who's more to blame: the school that let this competition go on or the narrator himself? Maybe they are both to blame, but the failure of the school to shut down something that bred "writing as warfare" should be called out for its part in this fiasco.
Which lesson is BEST conveyed through Dean Makepeace's actions in response to learning that the narrator plagiarized someone's work?
One of the more tragic consequences of living in a lie is that you begin to lose your true self. As the lie lives on, the real you slips away, until you feel, as Dean Makepeace did, like a "ghost."
Part III Quiz