Friday, March 18, 2011

Scout Doesn't Want to Go to School

In Chapter 2, the heroine and main character of "To Kill A Mockingbird," Scout (daughter of Atticus Finch), is in first grade on the first day of school. The new teacher, Miss Caroline (who is apparently an advocate of what we might call the new education promoted by John Dewey) was attempting to find out what the first graders know. Scout narrates the story beginning with what happened when Miss Caroline wrote the alphabet on the blackboard and showed it to the students:

I suppose she chose me because she knew my name, but 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 living room 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.”

. . . “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.”

[Note: A bit later, Scout carries on a discussion about this with her brother who says . . .]

“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?”

. . . 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.” [sic]

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 [n.b.], 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.”

[Note: And all of this on the first day of first grade for Scout! And then at the end of the chapter, we find this little discipline encounter . . .]

Miss Caroline stood stock still, then grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back to her desk. “Jean Louise [Scout], 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, become 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 one 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.

(Note: And at the end of Chapter 3, Scout doesn’t want to go back to school the next day because what she wants more than anything is to keep reading with her father. If going to school meant giving that up, she wanted nothing to do with school.)

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