The Split Cherry Tree
By: Jesse Stuart
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Download the transcript in PDF format: The Split Cherry Tree
“The Split Cherry Tree” is set in the hills of rural Kentucky. There are important temporal and socio-economic components to this story. The setting isn’t just the Kentucky hills; it’s rural America in the 1930s, with the Great Depression looming in the background. Making a living was a difficult proposition for many people, and kids pitched in at home to help with the hard physical labor that was required to run a farm or a homestead. It’s crucial to understand that the chores that kids performed at that time were a lot more essential to the family than the modern-day equivalents of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, and emptying the dishwasher. Dave’s father depends upon him to help the family survive.
Dave had climbed a cherry tree that he was not supposed to. His punishment was to help pay a fine. Since he didn’t have the money to pay the fine, Professor Herbert says that he can stay after school and work to earn the money to pay the fine.
“I don’t mind staying after school,” I say to Professor Herbert, “but I’d rather you’d whip me with a switch and let me go home early. Pa will whip me anyway for getting home two hours late.” “You are too big to whip,” says Professor Herbert, “and I have to punish you for climbing up in that cherry tree. You boys knew better than that! The other five boys have paid their dollar each. You have been the only one who has not helped pay for the tree. Can’t you borrow a dollar?”
“I can’t,” I say. “I’ll have to take the punishment. I wish it would be quicker punishment. I wouldn’t mind.”
So there you have the dilemma at the heart the story. The school teacher needs to punish the boy. The father depends on the boy to help him with work at home. Unlike his friends, Dave can’t pay the dollar fine so he must accept the punishment. The problem is that he can’t be at two places at the same time. The boy is caught in the middle. There must be a resolution. Dave understands the situation fully, so he tries to bargain.
“You don’t know my father,” I say to Professor Herbert. “He might be called a little old-fashioned. He makes us mind him until we’re twenty-one years old. He believes: ‘If you spare the rod you spoil the child.’ I’ll never be able to make him understand about the cherry tree. I’m the first of my people to go to high school.”
“You must take the punishment,” says Professor Herbert. “You must stay two hours after school today and two hours after school tomorrow. I am allowing you twenty-five cents an hour. That is good money for a high-school student. You can sweep the schoolhouse floor, wash the blackboards, and clean windows. I’ll pay the dollar for you.”
When Dave arrives at home and explains the situation, his father, Luster, becomes infuriated. He doesn’t have a high opinion of education in general, derisively referring to it as “bug larnin’.” Luster decides he will go to school with Dave the next morning and stop the foolishness, saying, “A bullet will make a hole in a schoolteacher same as it will anybody else.” Before Luster leaves with his son the next morning, he straps on his gun and holster.
Professor Herbert is rightly unsettled by the appearance of Dave’s gun-toting father the next morning.
“Why did you bring that gun?” says Professor Herbert to Pa.
“You see that little hole,” says Pa as he picked up the long blue forty-four and put his finger on the end of the barrel, “a bullet can come out’n that hole that will kill a schoolteacher same as it will any other man. It will kill a rich man same as a poor man. It will kill a man. But atter I come in and saw you, I know’d I wouldn’t need it. This maul o’ mine could do you up in a few minutes.”
After things settle down, Luster accompanies Professor Herbert throughout the school day, attending classes and even eating with the teacher. As the day proceeds he begrudgingly begins to respect the teacher and the school and its proceedings, realizing the value of the education his son is receiving.
As the school day draws to a close, Professor Herbert tells Dave to forget about paying off the debt. But Luster steps forward and tells Dave to pay it back. Then Luster says to help Dave complete the work and earn the dollar and pay it off. As the story closes, Luster apologizes to his son for his ignorance about his school and impresses upon him how important it is to always pay your debt.