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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Scout makes 3 mistakes on her first day of school. What were her mistakes, and why did they make Miss Caroline so angry?

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Scout's first day of school is disappointing, to say the least. For as long as she can remember, she has reflected upon the thought of attending school with a great deal of excitement and anticipation. We know that she had, in past years, felt incredibly jealous of Jem when he left for school. However, when the day finally comes for her to attend herself, the experience falls severely beneath her expectations. This disappointment causes a lapse in her decorum, and not managing her expectations well enough could be said to be her first mistake.

Her second mistake is flaunting the fact that she can already read and write. Miss Caroline is a young teacher, and is approaching a new experience every bit as much as Scout herself is. She is in no way prepared to deal with a student as willful as Scout, and no doubt fears losing control of the classroom if Scout gets the better of her. This tension and uncertainty from both parties creates a great deal of conflict.

Finally, Scout refuses to keep her thoughts to herself when Walter Cunningham will not accept money from Miss Caroline. The two could have likely sorted out the disagreement themselves, but Scout's intervention escalates the situation. She is likely feeling angry from her disappointment in school, as well as courageous from already getting under Miss Caroline's skin. To a young person like Scout, a teacher represents an absolute intellectual superiority. In Scout's mind, Miss Caroline should should already know all the subtleties of the classroom. She has no concept of Miss Caroline as a young woman who is every bit as confused and nervous as the students that she is teaching, perhaps even more so.

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Mistake number 1: Scout reveals to her inexperienced new teacher Miss Caroline that she already knows how to read. This is because Atticus taught her. Like any good parent, he also reads to her on a regular basis, which has improved Scout's general level of literacy. Strange as it may seem, Miss Caroline feels threatened by this. As far as she's concerned, it's her job to teach Scout to read, not her father. Scout's innocent remarks about her reading ability have made Miss Caroline feel that her authority as a teacher is being undermined. From then on, Scout is very much in Miss Caroline's bad books.

Mistake number 2: Scout reveals that she can do proper handwriting. Again, she doesn't think she's doing anything wrong by this. As with reading, writing is a skill that Scout has been taught at home by her father. But once again, Miss Caroline feels that her authority in the classroom is being undermined, and orders Scout to print when she's writing, just like a much younger child.

Mistake number 3: Scout intervenes when Miss Caroline attempts to lend Walter Cunningham Jr. a quarter for his lunch. Scout knows that the Cunninghams are too proud ever to accept charity from anyone, and tries to tell this to Miss Caroline. But Miss Caroline isn't prepared to listen, and feeling that she's been told what to do by an unruly pupil, raps Scout across the knuckles with a ruler.

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Scout has high hopes for her first day of school.  She had longed stared out in the distance to catch a glimpse of Jem playing in the schoolyard with the other children.  She wanted to be a part of this experience called school.

On the first day of school, Scout joins her class.  Miss Caroline is her teacher.  Scout unknowingly annoys Miss Caroline and makes her mad.  Scout makes three mistakes:

1.  Scout knows how to read, and she reads well.  Miss Caroline had expected a class full of hungry, unlearned young minds.  She asks Scout to identify the alphabet on the blackboard:

... as [Scout] read the alphabet a faint line appeared between [Miss Caroline's] eyebrows, and after making [her] read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that [she] was literate and looked at [her] with more than faint distaste (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 2).

Miss Caroline tells Scout to stop reading at home with her father.  She wants to "take over from here and try to undo the damage."  Miss Caroline wants to teach Scout how to read in her own way, which is by the methods she learned in college.  She is annoyed that someone else had taught Scout to read in the "wrong" way.

2.  Scout starts writing a letter to Dill in cursive.  Miss Caroline notices and stops her.  She tells Scout that her father needs to stop teaching her to write, as well.  She also informs Scout that for now she should learn to print, because she will not start writing in cursive until the third grade.  She is upset again that Scout had been taught to write in a way that she viewed as incorrect.

3.  Walter Cunningham, Jr. does not have lunch and Miss Caroline tries to loan him a quarter.  He refuses, but she insists.  Scout speaks up, trying to explain to Miss Caroline that people in the Cunningham clan do not borrow money from anyone.  Miss Caroline thinks that Scout is being impertinent, and she punishes her with smacks on the hand with a ruler.

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Scout certainly starts off on the wrong foot her first day of school.  First, she demonstrates that she knows how to read.  Second, she demonstrates that she knows how to write.  Third, she tries to offer an explanation for Walter Cunningham's behavior when Miss Caroline tries to give him money for lunch. 

It may seem odd that a teacher would be angry over a child who could already read and write, but as we read this section of the book, we can see what an insecure and rigid teacher Miss Caroline is.  She says that Atticus and Calipurnia have damaged Scout by teaching her how to read and write, so we can see that she believes there is only one way to learn, her way. 

Her lack of understanding about the Cunninghams stems from the fact that she is not a local woman and has no knowledge of any local families.  When Scout tries to explain, Miss Caroline is made even more insecure.

A good teacher is always happy to learn about new ideas and about his or her students, and the "portrait" of Miss Caroline is one of a teacher who is not very successful.

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Scout makes several mistakes which get her into trouble on her first day of school. The first mistake Scout makes comes after she reads aloud in class. Miss Caroline then criticizes Scout's father for teaching her how to read, and Scout responds by telling her teacher that nobody taught her to read. Scout comments that Jem told her that she had the ability to read at birth because she was a "Bullfinch" who was swapped at birth. Scout says Miss Caroline thought she was lying and told her not to let her imagination get away from her. Scout naively believed her brother and realizes her explanation "annoyed" Miss Caroline.

The second mistake Scout makes comes after recess. While Miss Caroline is holding up flashcards with beginner words on them, Scout gets bored and writes a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline catches Scout writing the letter and tells Scout that her father needs to stop teaching her how to write. Miss Caroline is clearly offended that Scout is not paying attention to the activity.

Scout's third mistake happens when she attempts to explain why Walter Cunningham will not accept Miss Caroline's quarter to buy lunch. Scout assumes Miss Caroline is familiar with the Cunninghams. Scout tells Miss Caroline,

You're shamin' him, Miss Caroline. Walter hasn't got a quarter at home to bring you, and you can't use any stovewood (15).

Miss Caroline is shocked at Scout's response. She immediately gives Scout several pats on the palm of her hand and tells her to stand in the corner as punishment for her behavior throughout the day.

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What a frustrating day that must have been to Miss Caroline!  She was fresh out of college and I'm sure she had dreams about how glorious her first day of class would be.  Instead, she has a student who's nearly as big as she is who has tried first grade...well, more than once, let's say.  She tries to teach the basics of reading and writing but discovers one of her pupils doesn't need her instruction--so now what's she supposed to teach her?  She thinks she's doing a nice thing for one of her students by loaning him lunch money, but her gesture is first ignored and then rebuffed--by the same smart-aleck girl who already knows how to read.  She reads a delightful story to her class, but they fail to find it as enthralling as she'd hoped.  She is frightened half out of her wits by finding "cooties" in one boy's hair. She's in a new culture, and even though she doesn't come from that far away, it feels like she's in a foreign country, at times.  It's certainly NOT the day she had hoped it would be. 

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Because Miss Caroline is from Winston County, which is in the northern part of Alabama and is part of Appalachia, she comes from an area with entirely different customs and religious denominations from that of Maycomb, which is like Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, in south Alabama.  To alienate her further, Scout says that "Winston County secede from Alabama in 1861, and every child in Maycomb County knew it."

Clearly, Miss Caroline is on foreign ground.  She has no understanding of the community, and when Scout tries to inform her about Walter Cunningham by saying, "You're shaming him, Miss Caroline...," the teacher feels that her student has derided her.  For, in essence, Scout tells her that she knows nothing about the area of Maycomb. 

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She knows how to read.  She knows how to write.  She tries to explain to Miss Caroline why Walter will not take the money for lunch.

The first two go against Miss Caroline's ideas about education.  The third frustrates her because she does not understand what Scout is trying to say.

A new teacher, first day of school, things aren't going the way she planned -- that would make her very frustrated and worried.  This means that she would get angry easily.

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