In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the meaning of this quote concerning Mayella Ewell?
"there was a lady who came around sometimes and asked Mayella why she didn't stay in school - she wrote down the answer"?
In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the quote,
"...there was a lady who came around sometimes and asked Mayella why she didn't stay in school—she wrote down the answer..."
...refers to the visit of the "truant lady," as first described in Chapter Three, when the reader is introduced to the Ewell family (specifically Burris) in Scout's first grade class. Scout's narration reveals then that the Ewells don't come to school very much, except for the first day, which is the best the truant officer seems able to accomplish.
During Chapter 18, Scout describes Atticus' courtroom technique, which the reader assumes she is long familiar with:
Slowly but surely I began to see the pattern of Atticus's questions: from questions that Mr. Gilmer did not deem sufficiently irrelevant or immaterial to object to, Atticus was quietly building up before the jury a picture of the Ewells' home life.
The information Mayella conveys to Atticus describes the visit of the truant officer. "...she wrote down the answer..." is not totally clear, as "she" is not identified as referring to Mayella or the truant officer. However, if we assume "she" is Mayella, putting the answer to the woman's question on paper proves that she can, in fact, write. Mayella provides the remainder of an explanation by telling Atticus:
...with two members of the family reading and writing, there was no need for the rest of them to learn—Papa needed them at home...
We can also infer that with six other children to be cared for, as well as Bob Ewell, Mayella would not have the time or the luxury (for we can assume she leads a hard life under her father's abusive hand) to attend school.
The false accusations against Tom Robinson, which ultimately cause his death, all alone provide a sense of tragedy in this part of the novel. However, there is also the tragic life of Mayella Ewell who is so desperate for attention that she turns to Tom; in her father's eyes, murder would have been more excusable. With Bob Ewell's death at the end of the story, one wonders what might have happened to someone like Mayella.
That quote comes from the summary of a day in the life of the Ewells, when Mayella was being cross examined by Atticus Finch. In that section Mayella basically explains how harsh it is to live as an Ewell. They were 7 total (sep'm= seven) brothers and sisters according to Mayella, the government check was not enough to feed the family, they were unkempt and sickly, poor and isolated, and basically destitute. However, Mayella and her father, as badly as it may be, were able to read and write, as opposed to everyone in the family.
When the lady came around to ask Mayella why she didn't stay in school, Mayella wrote down the answer as a way to demonstrate to the lady that she did not need to go to school because she could already write and read (albeit badly). Therefore, it was actually an act of semi defiance towards the lady and, since she could read and write and so could her father, everyone else was to stay home.