Dill goes back to Mississippi for the school year, and Scout turns her attention to starting first grade — something she's been waiting for all her life. However, Scout's first day at school is not at all the glorious experience she'd been expecting from the winters she spent "looking over at the schoolyard, spying on multitudes of children through a two-power telescope . . . learning their games, . . . secretly sharing their misfortunes and minor victories."
Scout's teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, is new to teaching, new to Maycomb, and mortified that Scout already knows how to read and write. When Miss Caroline offers to lend Walter Cunningham lunch money, Scout is punished for taking it upon herself to explain Miss Caroline's faux pas to her. (Walter refuses to take the money because his family is too poor to pay it back.)
Scout catches Walter on the playground, and starts to pummel him in retaliation for her embarrassment, but Jem stops her and then further surprises her by inviting Walter to have lunch with them. Scout is then punished by Calpurnia for criticizing Walter's table manners. Back at school, Miss Caroline has a confrontation with Burris Ewell about his "cooties" and the fact that he only attends school on the first day of the year.
That evening, Scout tells Atticus about her day, hoping that she won't have to go back to school — after all, Burris Ewell doesn't. Atticus explains why the Ewells get special consideration and then tells Scout, "'You never really understand a person . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'" These words stick with Scout, and she will try with varying degrees of success to follow Atticus' advice throughout the course of the story.
In these two chapters, Lee uses Scout to help the reader gain a better understanding of the Maycomb community and how it functions. Meeting Scout's classmates paves the way for meeting their adult family members later in the book. The children introduced in these chapters are a microcosm of their families. For instance, Walter Cunningham, like his father, is polite, self-effacing, and unwilling to accept charity. The reader also learns that the Ewells are an unsavory family. Burris Ewell displays the same sort character traits that make his father, Bob Ewell, so dislikable.
Scout considers her first day of school to be a dismal failure, and compared to what she was hoping for, it is. However, she learns a great deal about people in and out of the classroom. In one day's time, Scout learns several important lessons, but most importantly, she gets her first inkling that things are not always what they seem.
Scout is different from other children. Miss Caroline's harsh reaction to the fact that Scout already knows how to read and write takes the little girl by surprise. Doesn't everyone already know how to read and write? Scout laments, "I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers" — one of many humorous observations that Lee sprinkles through these two chapters and throughout the book. Even more astounding to Scout is the fact that Miss Caroline expects her to stop reading and writing at home now that she's in school.
Scout is all the more confused because her father is not like the authority figures she meets at school. Atticus is not a typical parent. Lee does an expert job of getting this message across to readers simply by having the children call Atticus by his first name. He treats his children as individuals and speaks to them in an adult-like manner. Scout accepts this behavior as normal, noting, "Jem and I were accustomed to our father's last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding." Perhaps if Miss Caroline had reasoned with Scout, the day would not have been so devastating for either of them.
Other people don't understand "Maycomb's ways." Harper Lee again emphasizes that outsiders are viewed with suspicion. When Miss Caroline announces her county of origin, "The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region."
When Scout tries to explain Walter Cunningham's predicament to Miss Caroline by simply saying, "'he's a Cunningham,'" she remarks to readers "I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us." The children don't expect Miss Caroline to understand the intricacies of their town, but they're forced to expand their worldview when they realize that "a Cunningham is a Cunningham" is not explanation enough for a Maycomb newcomer.
Ironically, Scout soon learns that she doesn't understand as much about "Maycomb's ways" as she thinks. When Scout uses Burris Ewell's lack of regular school attendance as a good reason that she shouldn't have to go to school either, Atticus explains that "In certain circumstances, the common folk judiciously allowed them certain privileges by the simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewells' activities." Dumbfounded, Scout can only accept Atticus' explanation.
Lee uses that explanation as foreshadowing — a literary device that alludes to something that will happen later in the story — of Mayella Ewell's reliance on special consideration for the accusations she brings against Tom Robinson. (Readers should note, too, that Lee masterfully keeps Boo Radley in the back of reader's minds by commenting that Scout "passed the Radley Place for the fourth time that day — twice at full gallop," while developing other major themes.)
Must be accepting of others' shortcomings. From Scout's perspective, all people, regardless of their station in life, are held to the same standards. Consequently, she feels perfectly justified in commenting on Walter Cunningham's table manners. Calpurnia takes her to task saying, "'Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty!'" Adding insult to injury, Atticus agrees with Calpurnia.
Interestingly, in spite of Scout's protests that Walter Cunningham "made me start off on the wrong foot," her friendship with him will later save Atticus in a potentially life-threatening situation.
The art of compromise. Despite Atticus' probing questions about Scout's first day of school, she says little. Scout is despondent at the thought of not being able to read at home anymore, but reluctant to tell Atticus after the trouble she's been in all day. Atticus is quite understanding and suggests a compromise: "'If you'll concede the necessity of going to school, we'll go on reading every night just as we always have.'" Surprisingly, Atticus asks that she keep their deal a secret from Miss Caroline, introducing Scout to the idea of a white lie. Throughout the story, Atticus functions as a peacemaker. Lee gives the reader a first glimpse into Atticus' reasoning abilities and personal beliefs in his choice to compromise with Scout rather than confront or ignore Miss Caroline.
Big Mules political term referring to modern Alabama power brokers.
catawba worms a type of caterpillar highly prized by fishermen in the Southern United States.
Lorenzo Dow a fiery, itinerant Methodist preacher of the Eastern and Southern United States.
hookworms a disease caused by hookworms, characterized by anemia, weakness, and abdominal pain: the larvae enter the body through the skin, usually of the bare feet.
entailment the act of entailing or of giving, as an estate, and directing the mode of descent. In this case, Walter Cunningham is most likely in a dispute over who is rightful heir to a piece of property.
the crash the 1929 stock market crash, which gave rise to the period of the Great Depression.
WPA a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new roads, hospitals, and schools throughout America.
cootie [Slang] common head lice.
fractious peevish; irritable; cross.
magnesia a white, tasteless powder, used as a mild laxative and antacid.