I n 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 thoughts about Calpumia’s fault.
The town children did so, and she looked us over.
«Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk.»
When Miss Caroline saw that there was no lunch on Walter Cunningham’s desk, she asked if he had forgotten it. Walter didn’t say anything; he just looked straight ahead.
«Did you forget your lunch this morning?» asked Miss Caroline again.
«Ye’m,» he finally muttered.
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 said softly.
Miss Caroline’s got impatient. «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.»
«Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham,» I said.
«What, Jean Louise?»
Miss Caroline didn’t understand what was clear enough to the rest of us: Walter Cunningham didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today and he wouldn’t 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?»
«Well, ma’am, the Cunninghams never take anything they can’t pay back. They live on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.»
I knew about the Cunningham’s situation because Walter’s father was one of Atticus’s clients. After a sad conversation in our living room one night about his problem, 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 Atticus if Mr. Cunningham would ever pay us, he said, «Not in money, but before the end of the year I’ll have been paid. You watch.»
We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stove wood in the back yard. Later, a sack of nuts appeared on the back steps. That spring when we found a sack full of turnip, Atticus said that Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.
«Why does he pay you like that?» I asked.
«Because 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 farmers, and the crisis hit them hardest.»
Atticus said that professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. Maycomb County was farm country, so doctors and dentists and lawyers were seldom paid in cash.
«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.»
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able 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 stove wood.»
Miss Caroline stood 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: it was a usual method of making oral bargains in Maycomb. Not knowing 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 out when the class finally understood that Miss Caroline had whipped me.
The laughter stopped only when Miss Blount, a native Maycombian not yet acquainted with the mysteries of the Decimal System, appeared at the door with 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 noise!»
The bell saved me from the comer. The class went out for lunch. Miss Caroline sat down at her table and buried her head in her arms. If she had been friendlier toward me, I would have felt sorry for her. She was a pretty little thing.