Learning Life Lessons in the Most Unexpected Places

[Contrast/comparison sample essay]

What can a petty thief and a rich boy possibly have in common? I
pondered this question as I read two short stories grouped together in our
reading textbook: Ernest Hemingway's "A Day's Wait" and Langston Hughes's
"Thank You, Ma'm." As I followed the stories to the end, however, I
realized that despite the obvious differences in the life lessons and the
settings they offer, these two stories possess an unexpected similarity of
main characters.
In both stories, the main characters learn a life lesson, but the
lessons themselves differ greatly. First, the lesson of "A Day's Wait," is
ultimately about how ignorance and miscommunication may lead to a profound
misunderstanding. Schatz, the protagonist, believes he is dying because he
has a fever of one hundred and two. Not understanding the differences
between Celsius and Fahrenheit degree systems, Schatz lies in bed, pale and
shivering, stoically expecting his end. His father finally puts an end to
Schatz's confusion by explaining to him how the two systems differ. Once he
understands that, the boy, now feeling very much alive, lets his pent-up
emotions run free. In the other story, Roger learns a lesson of kindness
from a most unexpected person. The story begins with Roger attempting to
steal a woman's purse. The victim, Mrs. Jones, gets the upper hand in the
situation and manages to both keep her purse and catch the boy. But instead
of turning him over to the police, Mrs. Jones takes him home, offers him
dinner, and gives him $10, a large sum of money in those times. Moved by
her generosity, Roger chooses not to steal her purse when it is within his
reach in Mrs. Jones's apartment. At the end of the story, he wants to thank
Mrs. Jones, the very person he had earlier tried to rob.
Like the diverging themes of these stories, their settings are also
quite different. "A Day's Wait" is set in a two-story country house. The
white family living there can afford a European education for their son and
a house call from a doctor when he gets sick. The writer describes in
detail the cold, wintry setting of the story with "the trees and the ground
varnished with ice" (7). On the other hand, judging by the references to
streets, apartment houses, and the women of different races who patronize
Mrs. Jones's workplace, "Thank You, Ma'm" is set in an urban area. Both
characters speak the vibrant African-American vernacular which suggests
their race. Their socioeconomic status seems rather low: Mrs. Jones works
at a hotel beauty shop, while the boy, hungry, unwashed, and with no
parents at home, is semi-abandoned. The time span of the stories differs as
well. As the story title suggests, "A Day's Wait" takes place over a period
of one full day. In contrast, "Thank You Ma'm" begins around 11 o'clock at
night and ends a few hours later after the characters finish their dinner
at Mrs. Jones's apartment.
Despite the differences in the stories' lessons and settings, there is
an interesting similarity between the stories' protagonists. Both main
characters are teenage boys. Schatz in "A Day's Wait" is a nine-year-old
boy. Similarly, Roger in "Thank You, M'am" is described as being of
fourteen or fifteen years of age. Furthermore, they both have an air of
physical vulnerability about them: Schatz is "very sick and miserable" (6)
while Roger is "frail and willow-wild" (18). Not only are they alike in
their appearance, but they also act in somewhat similar ways. More
specifically, both boys make mistakes as a result of their own thinking and
later are transformed and become mature through their interaction with
adults. In "A Day's Wait," it is his father's pointing out the differences
between the two thermometer scales which clears up Schatz's confusion. In
"Thank You, Ma'm," Mrs. Jones's generosity, and not the much more likely
punishment, inspires Roger's gratitude.
In conclusion, "A Day's Wait" and "Thank You, Ma'm" show an array of
differences and, at least, one similarity. The worlds their characters
inhabit could not be more different. Moreover, while one story plot is
driven by what amounts to a minor, albeit very human, misunderstanding,
the other is built around a petty crime. However, we find similarities
among the main characters of these two stories and in the experience of
acquiring a life lesson in the end.

Works Cited
Kay, Judy, and Rosemary Gelshenen. (2013). Discovering Fiction 2. 2nd ed.
Cambridge U. Press.

(728 words)