In the schoolyard, I kicked Walter Cunningham down and was rubbing his nose in the dirt when Jem came by and told me to stop. «You’re bigger’n he is,» he said.
«He’s as old as you, nearly,» I said. «Because of him I started off on the wrong foot.»
«Let him go, Scout. Why?»
«He didn’t have any lunch,» I said, and told Jem what had happened in class.
Walter had stood up and was quietly listening to Jem and me. «Your daddy Mr. Walter Cunningham from Old Sarum?» Jem asked, and Walter nodded.
My brother suddenly smiled at him and said, «Come on home to dinner with us, Walter, we’d be glad to have you.» Walter’s face brightened, then darkened.
Jem said, «Our daddy’s a friend of your daddy’s. Scout here, she’s crazy — she won’t fight you anymore.»
When we came home, Jem ran to the kitchen and asked Calpumia to set an extra plate, we had company. Atticus greeted Walter and began a discussion about crops.
«I can’t pass the first grade, Mr. Finch, because I’ve had to stay out every spring an’ help Papa with the choppin’, but there’s another one at the house now that’s field size.»
«Did you pay a bushel of potatoes for him?» I asked, but Atticus shook his head at me.
While Walter put food on his plate, he and Atticus talked together like two men, to the wonderment of Jem and me. Atticus was talking about farm problems when Walter asked if there was any syrup in the house. Atticus called Calpumia, who returned with the syrup. Walter poured syrup on his vegetables and meat with a generous hand. He would probably have poured it into his milk glass if I hadn’t asked what the same hill he was doing.
Walter quickly put his hands in his lap and bowed his head.
Atticus shook his head at me. «But he’s drowned his dinner in syrup,» I protested. «He’s poured it all over-»
Calpurnia asked me to come to the kitchen.
She was very angry. «There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,» she whispered, «but you ought not to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s your company and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?»
«He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham-»
«Shut your mouth! Doesn’t matter who they are, anybody who sets foot in this house’s your company, and don’t you let me catch you commentin’ on their ways like you were so high and mighty! You folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it comes to nothin’ the way you’re shamin’ ’em — if you can’t behave at the table you can just sit here and eat in the kitchen!»
During the afternoon class, standing in the middle of the room, Miss Caroline suddenly screamed, «It’s alive!»
All the boys rushed as one to her assistance. Lord, I thought, she’s afraid of a mouse. Little Chuck Little said, «Which way did he go, Miss Caroline? Tell us where he went, quick! D.C.-» he turned to a boy behind him — «D.C., shut the door and we’ll catch him. Quick, ma’am, where’d he go?»
Miss Caroline pointed her finger not at the floor, but to a hulking individual unknown to me. Little Chuck said gently, «You mean him, ma’am? Yessum, he’s alive. Did he frighten you some way?»
«I was just walking by when it crawled out of his hair,» Miss Caroline said in a horrified voice.
Little Chuck smiled broadly. «There’s no need to be afraid of a louse, ma’am. Ain’t you ever seen one? Now don’t you be afraid, you just go back to your table and teach us some more.» Little Chuck Little was another member of the population who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, but he was a born gentleman. He put his hand under her elbow and led Miss Caroline to the front of the room. «Now don’t you worry, ma’am,» he said. «There’s no need to be afraid of a louse. I’ll just fetch you some cool water.»
The louse’s host didn’t show any interest in the excitement around him. He found his guest in the hair above his forehead and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger.
When Little Chuck brought water, Miss Caroline drank it and finally found her voice. «What is your name, son?» she asked softly.
«Well, Burris,» said Miss Caroline, «I think you’d better go home and wash your hair.»
She read for a moment from a thick book on her table. «Burris go home and wash your hair with lye soap. When you’ve done that, put some kerosene on your head.»
«What for, missus?»
«To get rid of the lice. You see, Burris, the other children might catch them, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?»
The boy stood up. He was the filthiest human I had ever seen. His neck was dark gray, the backs of his hands were rusty, and his fingernails were black. No one had noticed him, probably, because Miss Caroline and I had entertained the class most of the morning.
«And Burris,» said Miss Caroline, «please bathe yourself before you come back tomorrow.»
The boy laughed. «You ain’t sendin’ me home, missus. I was going to leave myself — I’ve done my time for this year.»
As Miss Caroline didn’t understand what the boy meant, one of the elderly members of the class explained to her that the Ewell boys came the first day every year and then left. He said, «The truant lady officer gets them here because she threatens them with the sheriff, but she can’t hold them. So she just gets their names on the roll and runs them here the first day, and reckons that she’s carried out the law. And the teachers mark them absent the rest of the year…»