He was overweight and the kids at his middle school often teased him about his size. Even his teachers sometimes made cruel comments without realizing it. On his last day of school, his math teacher, Mrs. Bell, taught ratios. As an example, she chose the heaviest kid in class and the lightest kid in class . . . Mrs. Bell wrote the ratio on the board, 3:1, unaware of how much embarrassment she had caused both of them.
The narrator describes Stanley Yelnats’s life before being sent to Camp Green Lake. This negative experience in school reveals just one example of cruelty found throughout the novel as Stanley’s peers and even his teachers make mean comments and bully him. The type of treatment described in this scene acts as a foundation for the cruelty Stanley will continue to experience and witness at Camp Green Lake, preparing him for the challenges that lie ahead.
“You thirsty, Caveman?” Mr. Sir asked . . . Mr. Sir opened the nozzle, and the water flowed out of the tank, but it did not go into Stanley’s canteen. Instead, he held the canteen right next to the stream of water. Stanley watched the water splatter on the dirt, where it was quickly absorbed by the thirsty ground.
The narrator reveals how Mr. Sir uses a basic human necessity, water, to torture Stanley with thirst as payback. Mr. Sir blames Stanley for the rattlesnake venom scratches he suffered at the hands of the Warden. Stanley expected Mr. Sir to punish him somehow, and the counselor’s depriving him of water proves Stanley’s prediction correct. Such a scenario reveals how cruelty and vengeful acts tend to feed each other, triggering future acts of hate and violence.
“Zero’s too stupid to learn to read. That’s what makes his blood boil. Not the hot sun.” . . . Mr. Pendanski handed him the shovel. “Here, take it, Zero. It’s all you’ll ever be good for.” Zero took the shovel. Then he swung it like a baseball bat. The metal blade smashed across Mr. Pendanski’s face.
This exchange between Mr. Pendanski and Zero right before Zero runs away from Camp Green Lake perfectly demonstrates the power of cruelty, one of the novel’s main themes. Throughout the story, Mr. Pendanski is mean to Zero, cutting him down every chance he gets and treating him worse than any of the other boys. In this scene, Zero has finally had enough and retaliates against Mr. Pendanski’s malice, hitting Mr. Pendanski with the shovel. Once again, the theme of cruelty expanding to violence plays out, leading to Mr. Pendanski’s injury and Zero’s risky escape.