What does Atticus tell Scout to do when she hears ugly talk at school in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Atticus knows two things - something about Scout, another thing about human nature. 

First, Atticus knows that Scout is a fighter. He knows that when Scout is angry or annoyed that she will clench her fits and fight. Scout has done this in the past, and she will probably...

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Atticus knows two things - something about Scout, another thing about human nature. 

First, Atticus knows that Scout is a fighter. He knows that when Scout is angry or annoyed that she will clench her fits and fight. Scout has done this in the past, and she will probably do so later. So, Atticus wants Scout to use her head instead. 

Second, Atticus knows human nature. More specifically, he knows the people of Maycomb. Therefore, Atticus understands that people will begin to talk about his defending of Tom Robinson. Pressure and teasing (and worse) will certainly come to him and to his children. 

In light of these two points, Atticus predicts that difficult times will come to Scout in school. When it happens, she must hold her head up high and resist the urge to fight. In other words, she should be proud that her father is doing what is right and resist proving it through force. 

Here are the words of Atticus:

“Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change... it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.”

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Even though she's still a child, Scout already has some idea of how unacceptable racist language is, especially when it's used to insult Atticus. So, when Cecil Jacobs accuses Atticus of being a "n***** lover" in the schoolyard one day, she doesn't hesitate in using her fists to let him know exactly what she thinks about him.

This is an ideal opportunity for another one of Atticus's life lessons. He tells Scout to keep her head high and her fists down. This isn't just a case of Atticus urging one of his children not to get into fights; his words of wisdom have great practical significance. He knows that the insults that Scout's already received, the "ugly talk," is nothing compared to what she'll hear when the trial of Tom Robinson finally gets underway. Atticus is preparing Scout for what's likely to be a very sudden process of growing up.

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When Cecil Jacobs calls Atticus a "nigger-lover", Scout is all too quick to defend her father--by using her fists and beating Cecil into the ground. When Atticus hears about this, he does not scold Scout (in typical Atticus fasion). Instead, he tells Scout that she's probably going to hear some ugly talk at school during the trial. He requests that she keep her head held high and to not use her fists to solve her problems. She does very well with this request until Christmas, when she strikes her cousin Francis for insulting Atticus.

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