Dill left us early in September, to return to Meridian. We saw him off on the five o’clockbus and I was miserable without him until it occurred to me that I would be starting toschool in a week. I never looked forward more to anything in my life. Hours of wintertimehad found me in the treehouse, looking over at the schoolyard, spying on multitudes ofchildren through a two-power telescope Jem had given me, learning their games,following Jem’s red jacket through wriggling circles of blind man’s buff, secretly sharingtheir misfortunes and minor victories. I longed to join them.
Jem condescended to take me to school the first day, a job usually done by one’sparents, but Atticus had said Jem would be delighted to show me where my room was. Ithink some money changed hands in this transaction, for as we trotted around thecorner past the Radley Place I heard an unfamiliar jingle in Jem’s pockets. When weslowed to a walk at the edge of the schoolyard, Jem was careful to explain that duringschool hours I was not to bother him, I was not to approach him with requests to enact achapter of Tarzan and the Ant Men, to embarrass him with references to his private life,or tag along behind him at recess and noon. I was to stick with the first grade and hewould stick with the fifth. In short, I was to leave him alone.
“You mean we can’t play any more?” I asked.
“We’ll do like we always do at home,” he said, “but you’ll see—school’s different.”
It certainly was. Before the first morning was over, Miss Caroline Fisher, our teacher,hauled me up to the front of the room and patted the palm of my hand with a ruler, thenmade me stand in the corner until noon.
Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks,and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also wore high-heeled pumps and a red-and-white-striped dress. She looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. She boardedacross the street one door down from us in Miss Maudie Atkinson’s upstairs front room,and when Miss Maudie introduced us to her, Jem was in a haze for days.
Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am MissCaroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmuredapprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous tothat region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, WinstonCounty seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) NorthAlabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans,professors, and other persons of no background.
Miss Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had longconversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warmhouse beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order ofchocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. MissCaroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted firstgrade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able towalk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the storyand said, “Oh, my, wasn’t that nice?”
Then she went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous squarecapitals, turned to the class and asked, “Does anybody know what these are?”
Everybody did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.
I suppose she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a faintline appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My FirstReader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, shediscovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. MissCaroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with myreading.
“Teach me?” I said in surprise. “He hasn’t taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticusain’t got time to teach me anything,” I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook herhead. “Why, he’s so tired at night he just sits in the livingroom and reads.”
“If he didn’t teach you, who did?” Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. “Somebody did.
You weren’t born reading The Mobile Register.”
“Jem says I was. He read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead of a Finch. Jemsays my name’s really Jean Louise Bullfinch, that I got swapped when I was born andI’m really a-”
Miss Caroline apparently thought I was lying. “Let’s not let our imaginations run awaywith us, dear,” she said. “Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best tobegin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo thedamage-”
“Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.”
I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberatelylearned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In thelong hours of church—was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able toread hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that justcame to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, orachieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the linesabove Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all theevenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws,the diaries of Lorenzo Dow—anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawledinto his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does notlove breathing.
I knew I had annoyed Miss Caroline, so I let well enough alone and stared out thewindow until recess when Jem cut me from the covey of first-graders in the schoolyard.
He asked how I was getting along. I told him.
“If I didn’t have to stay I’d leave. Jem, that damn lady says Atticus’s been teaching meto read and for him to stop it-”
“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’sintroducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all thegrades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way—it’s like if you wantalearn about cows, you go milk one, see?”
“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I-”
“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in MaycombCounty.”
I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.
“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin‘ the first grade, stubborn. It’s theDewey Decimal System.”
Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. TheDewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on whichwere printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected ofus, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so Ibegan a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father tostop teaching me. “Besides,” she said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. Youwon’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.”
Calpurnia was to blame for this. It kept me from driving her crazy on rainy days, Iguess. She would set me a writing task by scrawling the alphabet firmly across the topof a tablet, then copying out a chapter of the Bible beneath. If I reproduced herpenmanship satisfactorily, she rewarded me with an open-faced sandwich of bread andbutter and sugar. In Calpurnia’s teaching, there was no sentimentality: I seldom pleasedher and she seldom rewarded me.
“Everybody who goes home to lunch hold up your hands,” said Miss Caroline,breaking into my new grudge against Calpurnia.
The town children did so, and she looked us over.
“Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk.”
Molasses buckets appeared from nowhere, and the ceiling danced with metallic light.
Miss Caroline walked up and down the rows peering and poking into lunch containers,nodding if the contents pleased her, frowning a little at others. She stopped at WalterCunningham’s desk. “Where’s yours?” she asked.
Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. Hisabsence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefootedin barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had owned any shoes he would have wornthem the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on aclean shirt and neatly mended overalls.
“Did you forget your lunch this morning?” asked Miss Caroline.
Walter looked straight ahead. I saw a muscle jump in his skinny jaw.
“Did you forget it this morning?” asked Miss Caroline. Walter’s jaw twitched again.
“Yeb’m,” he finally mumbled.
Miss Caroline went to her desk and opened her purse. “Here’s a quarter,” she said toWalter. “Go and eat downtown today. You can pay me back tomorrow.”
Walter shook his head. “Nome thank you ma’am,” he drawled softly.
Impatience crept into Miss Caroline’s voice: “Here Walter, come get it.”
Walter shook his head again.
When Walter shook his head a third time someone whispered, “Go on and tell her,Scout.”
I turned around and saw most of the town people and the entire bus delegationlooking at me. Miss Caroline and I had conferred twice already, and they were looking atme in the innocent assurance that familiarity breeds understanding.
I rose graciously on Walter’s behalf: “Ah—Miss Caroline?”
“What is it, Jean Louise?”
“Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.”
I sat back down.
“What, Jean Louise?”
I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us:
Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, hedidn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.
He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life.
I tried again: “Walter’s one of the Cunninghams, Miss Caroline.”
“I beg your pardon, Jean Louise?”
“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the county folks after a while. TheCunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scripstamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have.
They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
My special knowledge of the Cunningham tribe—one branch, that is—was gainedfrom events of last winter. Walter’s father was one of Atticus’s clients. After a drearyconversation in our livingroom one night about his entailment, before Mr. Cunninghamleft he said, “Mr. Finch, I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you.”
“Let that be the least of your worries, Walter,” Atticus said.
When I asked Jem what entailment was, and Jem described it as a condition of havingyour tail in a crack, I asked Atticus if Mr. Cunningham would ever pay us.
“Not in money,” Atticus said, “but before the year’s out I’ll have been paid. You watch.”
We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard.
Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crateof smilax and holly. That spring when we found a crokersack full of turnip greens, Atticussaid Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.
“Why does he pay you like that?” I asked.
“Because that’s the only way he can pay me. He has no money.”
“Are we poor, Atticus?”
Atticus nodded. “We are indeed.”
Jem’s nose wrinkled. “Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?”
“Not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit themhardest.”
Atticus said professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. AsMaycomb County was farm country, nickels and dimes were hard to come by for doctorsand dentists and lawyers. Entailment was only a part of Mr. Cunningham’s vexations.
The acres not entailed were mortgaged to the hilt, and the little cash he made went tointerest. If he held his mouth right, Mr. Cunningham could get a WPA job, but his landwould go to ruin if he left it, and he was willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote ashe pleased. Mr. Cunningham, said Atticus, came from a set breed of men.
As the Cunninghams had no money to pay a lawyer, they simply paid us with whatthey had. “Did you know,” said Atticus, “that Dr. Reynolds works the same way? Hecharges some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby. Miss Scout, if you giveme your attention I’ll tell you what entailment is. Jem’s definitions are very nearlyaccurate sometimes.”
If I could have explained these things to Miss Caroline, I would have saved myselfsome inconvenience and Miss Caroline subsequent mortification, but it was beyond myability to explain things as well as Atticus, so I said, “You’re shamin‘ him, Miss Caroline.
Walter hasn’t got a quarter at home to bring you, and you can’t use any stovewood.”
Miss Caroline stood stock still, then grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back toher desk. “Jean Louise, I’ve had about enough of you this morning,” she said. “You’restarting off on the wrong foot in every way, my dear. Hold out your hand.”
I thought she was going to spit in it, which was the only reason anybody in Maycombheld out his hand: it was a time-honored method of sealing oral contracts. Wonderingwhat bargain we had made, I turned to the class for an answer, but the class lookedback at me in puzzlement. Miss Caroline picked up her ruler, gave me half a dozenquick little pats, then told me to stand in the corner. A storm of laughter broke loosewhen it finally occurred to the class that Miss Caroline had whipped me.
When Miss Caroline threatened it with a similar fate the first grade exploded again,becoming cold sober only when the shadow of Miss Blount fell over them. Miss Blount, anative Maycombian as yet uninitiated in the mysteries of the Decimal System, appearedat the door hands on hips and announced: “If I hear another sound from this room I’llburn up everybody in it. Miss Caroline, the sixth grade cannot concentrate on thepyramids for all this racket!”
My sojourn in the corner was a short one. Saved by the bell, Miss Caroline watchedthe class file out for lunch. As I was the last to leave, I saw her sink down into her chairand bury her head in her arms. Had her conduct been more friendly toward me, I wouldhave felt sorry for her. She was a pretty little thing.