Mr. Creakle opens school the next day by switching a good number of the boys, including David, with a cane; "Half the establishment was writhing and crying before the day's work began," Dickens comments. The beatings are David's most vivid recollection of the school, along with the abuse suffered by poor Traddles who was "caned every day that half-year . . ."
The classes themselves are conducted within an atmosphere of noise and "sheer cruelty" in which boys are "too much troubled and knocked about to learn." One day the usually gentle Mr. Mell (to whom David is sympathetic) is conducting class and calls for silence in the room, particularly from Steerforth.
Steerforth begins to insult the schoolmaster, calling him a "beggar" and encouraging the other students to join the abuse. Mr. Creakle enters the room and takes Steerforth's side, adding further insult to the poor teacher. Steerforth tells everyone that Mr. Mell's mother is boarded in an alms-house (information which David had innocently told his friend). After further harassment, Mr. Creakle fires the schoolmaster on the spot.
One day, Mr. Peggotty and Ham visit David, bringing him an assortment of seafood and information about the health of the Peggotty household. David asks about little Em'ly, whom Mr. Peggotty describes as "getting to be a woman." Steerforth appears, and Mr. Peggotty and Ham invite him to visit them if he should ever come to Yarmouth.
The half-year passes, with summer days changing to frosty fall mornings, and David looks forward to the holidays when he can return home. Finally school is out, and David begins the long coach trip home to see his mother.
David spends the first night of his return journey at an inn in Yarmouth, where Mr. Barkis calls for him the next morning in his carrier. David tells the driver that he sent Peggotty the message that was requested, but Mr. Barkis replies that "nothing come of it." He asks David to repeat the message to her and to say that he is "a-waiting for an answer." David still does not realize that this is a marriage proposal. When David arrives home, he finds his mother in the parlor. He is surprised to find her holding an infant, which she introduces as his new brother.
The Murdstones being out on a visit, Peggotty, David, and his mother have supper together and spend a happy evening. David relates Barkis's message again and learns its meaning for the first time.
David's mother implores Peggotty to stay with her, and Peggotty vows that she will. David notices his mother's failing health — "her hand . . . so thin and white" — and her changed manner, "anxious and fluttered." But the familiar scene lulls away his anxiety, and he launches into stories about all that has happened.
The Murdstones return late that evening, and in the morning David apologizes to his stepfather for having been so disrespectful as to bite his hand during their last meeting. Later, however, David is set upon by Miss Murdstone for picking up his baby brother, and his mother is reprimanded for comparing the appearance of her two boys. David feels that he makes everyone, even his mother, uncomfortable with his presence, so he begins spending his evenings with Peggotty in the kitchen. However, he is told sternly "not to associate with servants" and not to retreat to his room during the day. In this way the holidays "lagged away," and David is not sorry when it is time to leave again for school. He will never see his mother again.
Chapter 7 further delineates the character of Steerforth, whom David admires, but who, in reality, is a rogue who uses other people for his own ends. David does not tell him about Em'ly, being "too much afraid of his laughing at me"; yet they will meet and Steerforth will bring about her destruction.
Steerforth's superficial, polished, and handsome appearance are weapons which he uses on people. Ham and Mr. Peggotty, like David, believe that he is a cultured gentleman. The unlucky Traddles, in all his misfortune, proves to be the most humane of all the boys.
The wretchedness of the school headed by the cruel Mr. Crealde is Dickens' protest against many schools of that period. Dickens attended Wellington Academy in North London, and this is probably a disguised account of his own schooling.
In Chapter 8, the main emphasis is on the fact that David is deeply torn between his love for his mother and the desire to be near her, and his terrible dislike for the Murdstones. The Murdstones completely dominate David's mother and have such control over her that she ends up defending the Murdstones in an argument with Peggotty. David's realization that the gulf between him and his mother cannot be bridged under these conditions is a stage in his slowly developing maturity.