Tom is Rev. Stelling's only pupil at King's Lorton, and he finds life difficult. He is good at games but a poor scholar, and now that he has no companions he feels lost. Furthermore, he cannot despise Rev. Stelling as he did Mr. Jacobs at the academy, for "if there were anything that was not thoroughly genuine about Mr. Stelling, it lay quite beyond Tom's power to detect it."
Mr. Stelling is an ambitious man, impressive in appearance and eloquence, but of no particular ability as a scholar or teacher. He lives well beyond his means, for "a clergyman who has such vigorous intentions naturally gets a little into debt at starting . . . ."
Tom is treated as a member of the family, but he has not capacity for Latin grammar and no comprehension of Mr. Stelling's sense of humor. Mr. Stelling has assured Mr. Tulliver that Tom will learn "to be a man who will make his way in the world"; but Tulliver has no definite idea of what is required, and Stelling knows only one way to educate a young man. Consequently, Tom receives a thorough drilling in Latin grammar and geometry, and Mr. Stelling "very soon set down poor Tom as a thoroughly stupid lad."
Tom is aware that he appears "uncouth and stupid," but he is unable to take any interest in his lessons. He longs for home, and to do something useful he watches over Stelling's infant daughter. He begins to yearn to have Maggie with him.
In October Maggie comes to visit. She is extremely interested in Tom's lessons. Tom tells her that girls can't learn Latin, but she shows a quick grasp of the examples in his book. However, she thinks his geometry is nonsense.
After she has been there a fortnight, Maggie begins to understand Euclid, and at last she asks Mr. Stelling if she couldn't learn to do Tom's lessons as well as he. Tom is indignant, and Mr. Stelling agrees with him that women "have a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn't go far into anything." Maggie is crushed by this.
After Maggie leaves, Tom is lonely again; but at last the time comes for his Christmas holidays; and his delight in the homecoming makes it almost worth it, "even at the heavy price of the Latin Grammar . . . ."
Tom's school days cast light on his character as an adult. Note that like his parents, he cannot make out Mr. Stelling's true character. "if there were anything that was not thoroughly genuine about Mr. Stelling, it lay quite beyond Tom's power to detect it: it is only by a wide comparison of facts that the wisest full-grown man can distinguish well-rolled barrels from more supernal thunder." Tom lacks both the wide knowledge and the powers of comparison. Stelling thinks Tom is stupid, but this is unjust. The boy is only uninterested in Latin and geometry. It is made clear later that he is quick enough in other ways, and he has a good business mind. He would have been very quick at the sort of learning his father planned for him. But the education he receives has nothing of interest for his simple clear mind; it is aimed at the imaginative mind, and Tom is far wide of that mark. Maggie, however, enjoys this kind of learning
Stelling is a hollow person. His abilities do not match his ambitions, and the author tells us this with ironic humor: "he would by-and-by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings." Stelling pays no attention to Tulliver's vague wishes for Tom, for "his duty was to teach the lad in the only right way — indeed, he knew no other." He has no conception of real scholarship, but a great willingness to bluff. But appearance alone is enough to fool Tom, and nearly everyone does.
The author devotes a good deal of space to the inequalities in education of the period. The only education available is not suited to Tom's needs. Maggie, of course, is in a more unfortunate position as an intelligent female person: her intelligence is either mistrusted or scorned.