Dill left us early in September, to return to Meridian. We saw him off on the five o’clock bus and I was miserable without him until it occurred to me that I would be starting to school in a week. I never looked forward more to anything in my life. Hours of wintertime had found me in the treehouse, looking over at the schoolyard, spying on
multitudes of children 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 sharing their 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’s parents, but Atticus had said Jem would be delighted
to show me where my room was. I think some money changed hands in this
transaction, for as we trotted around the corner past the Radley Place
I heard an unfamiliar jingle in Jem’s pockets. When we slowed to a walk at the edge of the schoolyard, Jem was careful to explain that
during school hours I was not to bother him, I was not to approach him with requests to enact a chapter 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 he
would 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, then made 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 boarded across 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 Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from
Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove
to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region.
(When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston
County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew
it.) North Alabama 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 long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss
Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and
floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and
said, “Oh, my, wasn’t that nice?”
Then she went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous square capitals, 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 faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market
quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.
“Teach me?” I said in surprise. “He hasn’t taught me anything,
Miss Caroline. Atticus ain’t got time to teach me anything,” I
added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. “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
“Jem says I was. He read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead
of a Finch. Jem says my name’s really Jean Louise Bullfinch, that I got swapped when I was born and I’m really a-”
Miss Caroline apparently thought I was lying. “Let’s not let our imaginations run away with us, dear,” she said. “Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage-”
“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 deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church- was it
then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that
just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s
moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings 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 crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
I knew I had annoyed Miss Caroline, so I let well enough alone and
stared out the window 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 me to read and for him to stop it-”
“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way- it’s like if you wanta learn 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 Maycomb County.”
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 the Dewey Decimal System.”
Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss
Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing
and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. “Besides,” she
said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’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, I guess. She would set me a writing task by scrawling the alphabet firmly across the top of a tablet, then copying out a
chapter of the Bible beneath. If I reproduced her penmanship
satisfactorily, she rewarded me with an open-faced sandwich of bread and butter and sugar. In Calpurnia’s teaching, there was no
sentimentality: I seldom pleased her 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 Walter Cunningham’s
desk. “Where’s yours?” she asked.
Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had
hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught
hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had
owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean 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 to Walter. “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 delegation looking at me. Miss Caroline and I had conferred twice
already, and they were looking at me 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, he didn’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
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. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back- no church baskets and no scrip stamps. 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 gained from events of last winter. Walter’s father was one of
Atticus’s clients. After a dreary conversation in our livingroom one night about his entailment, before Mr. Cunningham left 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 having your 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 crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a crokersack full of turnip greens, Atticus said 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 them hardest.”
Atticus said professional people were poor because the farmers
were poor. As Maycomb County was farm country, nickels and dimes
were hard to come by for doctors and 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 to interest. If he held his mouth right, Mr. Cunningham could get a WPA job, but his land would go to ruin if he left it, and he was
willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote as he 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 what they had. “Did you know,” said Atticus, “that Dr. Reynolds works the same way? He charges some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby. Miss Scout, if you give me your attention I’ll
tell you what entailment is. Jem’s definitions are very nearly accurate sometimes.”
If I could have explained these things to Miss Caroline, I would
have saved myself some inconvenience and Miss Caroline subsequent
mortification, but it was beyond my ability 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
Miss Caroline stood stock still, then grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back to her desk. “Jean Louise, I’ve had about enough of you this morning,” she said. “You’re starting 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 Maycomb held out his hand: it was a time-honored method
of sealing oral contracts. Wondering what bargain we had made, I turned to the class for an answer, but the class looked back at me
in puzzlement. Miss Caroline picked up her ruler, gave me half a dozen quick little pats, then told me to stand in the corner. A storm of laughter broke loose when 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, a native Maycombian as yet uninitiated in the mysteries of the Decimal System, appeared at the door hands on hips and announced: “If I hear another sound from this room I’ll burn up everybody in it. Miss Caroline, the sixth grade
cannot concentrate on the pyramids for all this racket!”
My sojourn in the corner was a short one. Saved by the bell, Miss Caroline watched the class file out for lunch. As I was the last to leave, I saw her sink down into her chair and bury her head in her
arms. Had her conduct been more friendly toward me, I would have felt sorry for her. She was a pretty little thing.