To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about Atticus, a lawyer, and his children, Jem and Scout, living in Alabama. Jem and Scout are infatuated with a spooky neighbor, "Boo" Radley, Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is found guilty by a racist jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Bob Ewell, the winner of the case, attacks Jem and Scout to exact revenge but Boo saves them and kills Bob.
The fall has arrived in Maycomb bringing with it the new school year. Dill has returned to Meridian leaving Scout and Jem to begin the new school year. Jem is entering fifth grade while Scout is entering first grade. Her teacher Miss Caroline is not only to the area, but also new to the school. She has just graduated from the teachers college and is using a new teaching method that will soon be in all of the grades. For this reason, Miss Caroline asks Scout to prevent her father from continuing to teacher her how to read and write as it will interfere with the new method. The period before lunch, Miss Caroline discovers that Walter Cunningham is without a lunch pail. She tries to offer him a quarter to purchase lunch in town but he refuses to take it. Scout explains his family's financial situation to Miss Caroline which leads to her being punished for the duration of the period.
It is early in September and Dill has returned to Meridian for the school year. Scout is beginning the first grade and Jem is beginning fifth grade. He agrees to walk her to school on the first day so that he can show her where her classroom is; however, on their way to school, tells Scout that she is prohibited from bothering him or making any references to home activities.
Scout's teacher is new graduate from teacher's college who is originally from Winston County in North Alabama. This region is notorious for its secession from the state when the state seceeded from the Union. They are regarded suspiciously for their Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background(18). Miss Caroline begins the school day by reading a story with talking cats, literature that is rather uninteresting to the students whose lives involve hard farm labor. Following that she introduces them to the alphabet and asks Scout to recite it for the class. In disbelief of Scout's literacy and diction, Miss Caroline then asks Scout to read from her reading primer and the news paper. Realizing that Scout knows how to read Miss Caroline tells her to disallow Atticus from teaching her reading as his lack of qualifications will interfere with her learning. Scout realizes that she started reading as a result of climbing into Atticus's lap every night and reading whatever he was reading. During recess, Scout tells Jem about the issues Miss Caroline has with her ability to read. Jem informs her that Miss Caroline is trained in a new teaching method and she doesn't want anything to interfere with the experiment.
Later that day Scout is caught writing a letter to Dill in script. Miss Caroline again tells her that Atticus must stop teaching her to write. Scout does not reply, but privately blames Calpurnia for making her practice writing to keep her from getting in the way. At lunch time Miss Caroline takes a survey of the class to learn who brings their lunch and who returns home for lunch. The only student to do neither is Walter Cunningham. Unaware of the Cunningham family, Miss Caroline inquires into the location of his lunch. He tells her that he forgot to bring it from home. When she tries to give him lunch money he refuses thus upsetting her. Scout is forced to explain to Miss Caroline that Walter comes from a poor family that never borrows anything they cannot repay. Scout tells Miss Caroline that she is shaming Walter by insisting he take the lunch money. Miss Caroline punishes Scout for her comment by rapping her on the hand with a ruler and forcing her to stand in the corner for the rest of the period.
Scout knows about the Cunninghams because her father once represented Mr. Cunningham in an entailment. Unable to pay Atticus's fees in money, Mr. Cunningham made payment with farm produce and stovewood. Atticus explained to Scout that the Cunninghams were poor farmers whose poverty affected professional people; therefore, Atticus has to accept the form of payment Mr. Cunningham can make.
Jem catches Scout rubbing Walter Cunningham's nose in the dirt as retribution for not bringing a lunch and getting her in trouble. Jem invites Walter home for lunch during which he and Atticus discuss adult matters, such as farming. As soon as lunch is served, Calpurnia reprimands Scout for making disparaging comments about Walter's eating habits. Upon returning to school, scout witnesses an argument between Burris Ewell and Miss Caroline over his uncleanliness. Disheartened by her first day of school, Scout tells Atticus she doesn't want to return to school. She doesn't believe it's fair for her to be forced to go to school when Burris Ewell is not required to attend regularly. Atticus promises to continue their nightly reading ritual in exchange for her promise to continue to attend school.
Much to Jem's dismay, he finds Scout rubbing Walter's knows in the dirt as soon as they are released for lunch. Scout blames Walter's not having a lunch on her punishment and is retaliating. Jem invites Walter home with them for dinner(26) or lunch because he knows Atticus is friends with Mr. Cunningham. During lunch, Atticus and Walter have a conversation about crops and farming that neither Jem nor Scout can understand. Walter reveals that his inability to pass the first grade is due to his farming responsibilities in the spring time.
Once he is serves, Walter requests molasses which he generously pours over his entire plate. Upon seeing this, Scout demands to know what he thinks he is doing. Calpurnia is so disappointed and angry with Scout that she pulls her into the kitchen to be reprimanded for not minding her manners. She has to remind her that 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! Yo' folks might be better'n the Cunninghams but it don't count for nothin' the way you're disgracin' em(27). Scout is forced to finish her lunch in the kitchen for her transgression.
When Scout returns to school, she finds Miss Caroline in shock from seeing a cootie (29) crawl from Burris Ewell's hair. She attempts to send him home, not to return until he has bathed and rid himself of parasites. Burris refuses to leave the classroom because of an arrangement his family has with the truancy officer. They are only required to attend school the first day of the year to have their names included on the roster; they are to be marked absent for the rest of the year. Burris leaves with a barrage of insults after Miss Caroline threatens to call the principal.
Scout tells Atticus about her day after supper and attempts to convince him that she is too sick to return to school. He calmly explains to her the importance of seeing life from others' perspectives: You never understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it(33).. When she compares herself to Burris Ewell, Atticus then explains to her that unlike the Finches, the Ewells are a dishonest, uneducated and trashy family whose sometimes illegal habits are overlooked by the town. For that reason, she must continue to go to school. He promises to continue to reading with her every night if she promises to go to school.
These chapters serve to further introduce the reader to the social milieu of Maycomb. Scout's first day of school, though full of the typical foibles associated with a child's first day, is also full of crucial information regarding the class divisions prevalent in Maycomb County. Lee, again, uses the point of view of a child to reveal the underlying class tensions that dictate the behavior of and interactions between Maycomb citizens. Using the text as a guide, the reader can detect three major socioeconomic groups in Maycomb, each having subtler divisions within them.
The Finches clearly represent the upper echelons of Maycomb society. This is exemplified by Scout's impressive ability to read advanced texts despite her young age. The majority of her classmates is illiterate or has stayed back in first grade several times. Families like the Cunninghams represent the majority of Maycomb County who are poor farmers; this is demonstrated by Walter's generous use of molasses as an all-purpose condiment. The daily lives of Scout's classmates are dominated by chores and other mature responsibilities. They neither have the time nor do they prioritize book learning. Scout takes particular note of this with her comment regarding Miss Caroline's cat book: 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(19).
Then there are the Ewells who seem to be in a social stratum of their own making. Atticus describes the Ewells as a disgraceful, dishonest family that lives like animals. They so frequently break the law that the citizens of Maycomb County merely overlook their behavior. For example, the truant officer seeks only to have the Ewell children attend the first day of school every year in order to have their names added to the roster. For the rest of the year, they are to be marked absent. Now there is a fourth social category to which Lee draws our attention through Scout's unwittingly astute observations; that group is the African American population residing in Maycomb who are represented by Calpurnia. In Chapter 3, she takes her supper in the kitchen rather than at the table with the Atticus and the children; this is only after she serves them their food.
Although these chapters reveal the hidden social hierarchy that dominates Maycomb life, Lee uses irony throughout these sections of the text in order to stress, again, Maycomb life is always and never what it appears to be. This is first demonstrated by Scout's ability to read above grade level. Rather than being acknowledged for her skill, Scout is reprimanded as well as discouraged from practicing her reading skills. On the other hand, many of her classmates can barely read just below grade level; a fact of which Miss Caroline makes no mention. Another example of the contradictions inherent to Maycomb's social hierarchy is the incident at supper (lunch) time. Walter Cunningham, a member of the middle category and despite his poverty, is able to relate to Atticus on an adult level. Neither Jem nor Scout can understand the conversation Walter is having with their father about agriculture. Therefore, not only does this speak to the types of intelligence present in the County, but it also speaks to the relativity of formal/traditional education's importance. Walter Cunningham may not be able to pass the first grade, but he is able to manage a farm. Also at dinner, the reader witnesses the inverted social schema through Calpurnia's reprimand of Scout. Although Calpunia relegated to the kitchen during meal times, her authority extends into the house when necessary.
In addition to commenting on the rigid social distinctions present in Maycomb, Lee is also making another statement on the rigidity of Maycomb's cultural rituals. She achieves this with a comparison between Burris Ewell and Scout. Burris is permitted to leave school after the first day, despite his illiteracy; whereas, Scout is punished by Miss Caroline for practicing her reading skills with her father. Miss Caroline is more concerned about the potentially unorthodox methods Atticus uses to teach Scout than she is about the Ewells' lack of concern for their children's welfare. This is typical of the region in which very little trust in placed in what is new or different. Therefore, the Ewells' behavior is tolerated because they do not diverge too far from social expectations; whereas the Finches, despite their deep understanding of Maycomb culture, continuously challenge it.