We’re blogging To Kill a Mockingbird, all 400 pages of it. If you missed the first part, click here.
Because Scout is young, fresh-faced, and not yet drowning in student debt, she’s excited to start school in chapter 2. Until she actually gets there, that is. Within about five minutes of starting the first grade, Scout has already had a very public throwndown with her teacher, Miss Caroline, and winds up ultimately as disenchanted with the American education system as the rest of us.
Miss Caroline is from out of town. I guess nobody told her she’d be teaching a bunch of farmers’ kids who are poor in money but rich in life lessons. Half of them failed the class the year before and are therefore too old for books about talking cats. Even the kids who AREN’T too old for books about talking cats kind of are too old for books about talking cats, you know what I mean?
Scout is new, of course, but she already knows how to read thanks to Atticus, which irks the indomitable Miss Caroline for whatever reason. That’s strike #1. Miss Caroline then catches Scout writing a letter to Dill. That’s strike #2.
Strike #3 comes when Miss Caroline makes the mistake of offering lunch money to Walter Cunningham, like some kind of errant fool. Walter didn’t bring anything to eat, and Miss Caroline’s heart is in the right place, I’m sure, but she has a fundamental misunderstanding of The Way Things Work here in Maycomb. There’s a rigid social order. But instead of “upper-class,” “middle-class,” and “lower-class,” there is just “poor,” “really poor,” and “super poor.” The Cunninghams are super poor. They don’t take anything from anyone that they can’t pay back. Scout patiently explains all of this to Miss Caroline. For the crime of trying to be helpful, Miss Caroline gives Scout a slap on the wrist and forces her to stand in the corner.
At lunch, which marks the beginning of chapter 3, Jem catches Scout doling out some good old-fashioned Maycomb street justice by rubbing Walter Cunningham’s nose in the dirt for getting her into trouble. Jem invites Walter back to their house for lunch, which in this book they call dinner, which I get is a regional thing but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Lunch is lunch, and dinner is dinner. Brunch spits in the face of linear time and supper is a fool’s game. Are we all clear on that? Excellent.
Anyway, Walter puts molasses all over his meat and vegetables like Will Ferrell in Elf, which horrifies Scout (and me too a little bit, if I’m being honest). Calpurnia rebukes Scout for pointing this out and being rude. Yes, I’m with you, Walter’s a guest in their house and probably doesn’t get to eat molasses very often, salient point well made. But there are things that should be covered in syrup and things that should not be covered in syrup, and I think we can all agree on that.
The Shakespearean tragicomedy that is Scout’s first day of school continues after lunch. When the students return to class, a bug crawls out of someone’s hair. Miss Caroline’s reaction is appropriate but respectfully restrained; she screams loudly but doesn’t actually burn down the entire school, as many of us would.
The student in question is Burris Ewell. When Miss Caroline instructs him to go home for the day and get his hygiene in check, Burris says he was just about to leave anyway and won’t be coming back. Miss Caroline is confused. Can students just leave school? Can they do that? I myself spent eighteen whole years in school when I could have just been not doing that.
Someone who is not Scout decides to field this one. The kid explains to Miss Caroline that all the Ewell children come to school for one day and one day only, because that’s enough to keep “the truant lady” off their case. I guess the truant lady has better things to do than, you know, her job. When they are not in school, the Ewells like to spend their time getting extremely dirty and being mean to people. As if to demonstrate this point, Burris leaves, but not before shouting a bunch of awful stuff at Miss Caroline and making her cry.
Scout’s not impressed with her first day of school. Miss Caroline told her to stop reading outside the classroom because Scout needs to learn how to read The Right Way and Atticus is probably teaching her The Wrong Way. This upsets Scout. When she gets home, she tells Atticus that she’s decided not to pursue education. She tried it, it wasn’t for her, thanks for the opportunity. Atticus explains that Scout that she can’t just quit school like Burris Ewell. He makes a deal with her; he says if Scout goes back to school, then they will continue to read in the evenings and just won’t tell Miss Caroline.
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
THIS AND THAT
The Ewell family won’t pop up again until much later in the story, but the kids tell Miss Caroline that they “ain’t go no mother,” and “their paw’s right contentious.”
A big part of the book is JUSTICE. Scout may be young, but she’s perceptive enough to recognize unfairness when she sees it. For instance, she finds herself punished arbitrarily by Miss Caroline. She has to go to school, while the Ewell children don’t. She even points out that Calpurnia disciplines her far more than she does Jem, though Atticus says this is because Jem “doesn’t worry her half as much.” These aren’t exactly the kind of moral wrongs that gave us Batman, but we’ll hear more about justice later and on a much grander scale.
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