What is the significance of Scout's first day at school in To Kill a Mockingbird?  

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From Scout's first day at school, readers learn about Maycomb society and Scout learns a lesson in diplomacy.

Scout tries to intervene when Miss Caroline, her first-grade teacher from out of town, tries to give Walter Cunningham, who shows up without lunch, a quarter so he can buy something to eat. Scout tries helpfully to explain that the Cunninghams don't take charity, but this, along with Scout's ability to read, comes across to Miss Caroline as Scout being an obnoxious know-it-all. Miss Caroline disciplines Scout and tells her she is not allowed to read at home as she has not been taught according to the proper method.

When Scout asks Atticus to take her out of school as it is not working for her, he insists that she needs to go and that it is important to learn to get along with people in the community like her teacher who might think differently—an important lesson about community that is repeated throughout the novel. Atticus tells her she can read at home but not to let Miss Caroline know: he is trying to show her the distinction between private and public behavior and to teach her to exercise tact.

From the example of Walter and also Burris Ewell, we learn about the social strata among the white Maycomb poor. The Cunninghams might have very little—not even enough to send their children to school with lunches—but they are the respectable poor, because they pay their debts, work hard, and behave respectably. The Ewells, in contrast, are considered white trash, because they depend on the community for charity, have an alcoholic father, don't keep clean, and don't stay in school.

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Scout's first day of school is significant for several reasons. On Scout's first day of school, she has unfortunate interactions with her rigid teacher Miss Caroline, becomes acquainted with her peers, and gains insight into the nature of the Cunningham and Ewell families. Through Scout's negative interactions with Miss Caroline, Harper Lee criticizes Alabama's education system, which she juxtaposes with the importance of gaining a moral education throughout the novel. Scout's defense of Walter Cunningham Jr. leads to an enlightening conversation with her father later that evening. Atticus goes on to teach Scout an important lesson on perspective. Scout also gains insight into the nature of Cunningham and Ewell families on her first day of school. While Walter is portrayed as a meek boy with strong morals, Burris Ewell is depicted as an ignorant, rude boy. Both families will play a significant role in Scout's life as the novel progresses and Atticus's lesson on perspective will positively impact Scout's perception of her community.

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Scout’s first day of school is important because her expectations do not meet reality.

The first day of school is a maturing experience for Scout.  She was very excited about going to school for the first time.  She has been jealous of Jem, and thinks that first grade will be wonderful.  After all, Scout is very smart. She can already read and write when she starts school, but that’s part of the problem.

I never looked forward more to anything in my life. Hours of wintertime had found me in the treehouse, looking over at the schoolyard, spying on multitudes of children through a two-power telescope Jem had given me, learning their games … (Ch. 2)

School is not at all what Scout expects.  Miss Caroline is a new teacher who is in way over her head.  Scout gets in trouble for already knowing how to read, and Miss Caroline suggests that Atticus has been wrong to teach her.  Scout is confused because Atticus never taught her to read.  She just learned.  The thought of not reading was too much for her.

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. (Ch. 2)

At school, Scout and her classmates try to show their clueless teacher the ways of Maycomb, from the Ewells to the Cunninghams.  Burris Ewell gets into an altercation with her when she suggests he bathe, and she tries to give Walter Cunningham a quarter for lunch.  She does not know the special place the Ewells have in Maycomb society, and isn’t aware that a Cunningham never borrows money because he can’t pay it back.

Scout does not want to return to school.  She feels like her teacher is mean to her and school is not what she expected.  Atticus uses this experience to teach Scout her most important lesson so far—the importance of empathy.  He tells her that she will get along better with people if she learns to look at things from their point of view, because you can never understand a person “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Ch. 3).

Atticus tells Scout that they will continue to read together, but she must continue to go to school.  School never really gets better for Scout, but she develops more reasonable expectations as time goes on.  She is well ahead of her class and teachers intellectually, but Scout matures emotionally. 

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