At the beginning of September Dill returned to Meridian. At first, I missed him very much, but then I remembered that I would be starting to school in a week. I never looked forward more to anything in my life. In wintertime I had spent hours in the tree house, looking over at the schoolyard through a two-power telescope Jem had given me. I had watched schoolchildren and learned their games. I wanted to join them so much.
Jem agreed to take me to school the first day. It was usually done by one’s parents, but Atticus had said that Jem would be delighted to show me where my room was. I think some money changed hands for this agreement: as we ran around the corner past the Radley Place, I heard an unfamiliar jingle in Jem’s pockets. When we walked through the schoolyard, Jem explained that during school hours I was not to bother him, I was not to ask him to play together or tag along behind him at recess and noon. I was to stay with the first grade and he would stay with the fifth. In short, I was to leave him alone.
«You mean we can’t play anymore?» 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, made me stand in front of the class and patted the palm of my hand with a ruler, then made me stand in the comer until noon.
Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had dark red hair, pink cheeks, and wore dark red fingernail polish. She also wore high-heeled shoes 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 worriedly, whether she would show the peculiarities typical of 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 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 pretty little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat went into the drugstore to buy a chocolate mouse, the class was fidgeting in their seats. Miss Caroline was unaware that the 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 big letters, turned to the class and asked, «Does anybody know what these are?»
Everybody did because most of the first grade were repeating a year.
I think she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a line appeared between her eyebrows. Then she made me read most of My First Reader and discovered that I was literate. She frowned and told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore.
«It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here. Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.»
At recess, Jem asked me how I was getting along. I told him.
«If I didn’t have to stay I’d leave. Jem, that damn lady says that Atticus’s been teaching me to read and must 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 want to learn about cows, you go milk one, see?»
«Yeah Jem, but I don’t want to study cows, I-»
«Sure you do. You have to know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.»
I just asked 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.»
On the recommendation of the Dewey Decimal System, Miss Caroline showed us cards on which were printed «the,» «cat,» «rat,» «man,» and «you.» No comment was expected of us, and the class looked at these cards in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline saw it 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.»
It was Calpumia’s fault. On rainy days, so that I didn’t bother her, she set me writing tasks: she scrawled the alphabet across the top of a tablet, then copied out a chapter of the Bible beneath. If I copied her writing satisfactorily, she rewarded me with an open-faced sandwich of bread and butter and sugar.