How do the students in her class appear wiser than Miss Caroline on her first day in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miss Caroline is an outsider, and, therefore, she is not familiar with the town and its cultural differences, nor is she acquainted with particular families and their "peculiarities."

Scout mentions that Miss Caroline is from Winston County. This is a county in the far northern part of the state that is significant because it was sympathetic to the North during the Civil War--an important fact of which generation after generation reminds its children. So, when Miss Caroline ingenuously announces that she is from Winston County, Scout narrates,

The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to 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 Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.

Miss Caroline has been trained in the John Dewey theories of education, so she finds any other method of learning "distasteful." For example, she scolds Scout for being able to read since teaching reading is her responsibility. She also scolds Scout for knowing how to write, saying that in first grade, students print. Then when she tries to loan Walter Cunningham a quarter for lunch, Miss Caroline does not understand why he refuses to take the money and just pay her back the next day.

In a similar fashion, Miss Caroline does not understand the Ewell family, either. When she first walks past Burris Ewell, something moves in front of her, and she screams, "It's alive!" Chuck Little, a small gentleman, comes to her rescue, chasing the bug across the floor. Miss Caroline tells him with desperation in her voice that the insect crawled out of the Ewell boy's hair. Chuck consoles her, saying that there is no need to fear "a cootie." Like a little gentleman, he escorts Miss Caroline to her desk and offers to "fetch" her some cool water.

Miss Caroline also does not understand that Burris and his "cooties" only come to school on the first day of the new school year. One of the older members of the class explains that Burris is a Ewell, a family of sorts. The children come the first day every year and then depart. The truancy officer threatens them "with the sheriff" to get them to attend the first day, but she has "give up tryin' to hold 'em." The officer gets their names on the roll, a student tells Miss Caroline, and after that the teacher just marks them absent. Then, when Miss Caroline asks, "But what about their parents?" she is told, "Ain't got no mother...and their paw's right contentious."

When Miss Caroline orders Burris to sit down, he does, but then grows very angry, "You try and make me, missus." So the little gentleman, Chuck Little, rises and urges his teacher to let Burris go, saying, "He's a mean one...He's liable to start somethin', and there's some little folks here." Then his hand goes into his pocket, and he tells Burris to watch his step. "I'd soon's kill you as look at you. Now go home." When Miss Caroline tells Burris to leave, the boy turns back and insults her.

As lunchtime arrives, the children are released and the distraught Miss Caroline puts her head down on the desk.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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