After a spate of aimless days, Matilda returned to school, this time with Mr. Watts as her teacher. Like the minister’s house, the schoolhouse had been overtaken by flowering vines that crept through the windows and down from the ceiling. Mr. Watts waited for the students to file in, and once they’d taken their places, he wrapped his hand around a vine and crumpled it in his fist, saying, “I want this to be a place of light. No matter what happens.” The twenty students stared at him, taking in his white linen suit and bulging eyes. He told them he was aware of his nickname and that, should they like to, they could call him Pop Eye.
This is the first moment in Mister Pip in which Mr. Watts becomes an actual person rather than a mysterious representative of white culture. The barriers between him and the villagers begin to break down in this moment, and the children are given the chance to consider him on his own terms. At the same time, he recognizes that they hold preconceived ideas about who he is. Instead of trying to change this, he accepts their conception of him by allowing them to call him Pop Eye. As such, he shows himself to be flexible and willing to work within the context of his students’ culture.
After the class cleared the room of its creeping vines—creating light and open space—Mr. Watts said, “I want you to understand something. I am no teacher, but I will do my best. That’s my promise to you children. I believe, with your parents’ help, we can make a difference to our lives.” Before dismissing the children, he told them, “The truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we’ve got. Oh, and of course Mr. Dickens.” This confounded the children, as they recognized Mr. Dickens as a white person’s name but were certain Mr. Watts was the only white man in the village. Later that night, Matilda told her mother she was going to meet this Mr. Dickens the following day, and Dolores insisted that she must have misunderstood. Just in case, though, she instructed her daughter to ask Mr. Dickens if he could fix their generator.
When Mr. Watts says the sentence, “I believe […] we can make a difference to our lives,” he refers to the class as a collective. Even more importantly, this collective includes him, too. In this way, he demonstrates his belief that he himself can learn from the students, framing the process of education as a collaborative act. Rather than standing at the front of the classroom as an authoritative and superior white instructor, he seeks to establish a give-and-take relationship with his students, recognizing that their culture is just as important as his own and that everybody will benefit if they can weave together their diverse backgrounds.
The next morning, Mr. Watts was the only white person in the classroom. The children strained their necks, looking out the window to see if Mr. Dickens was on his way—like Matilda, each student bore his or her own request for the mysterious white man, messages passed along from their parents. As they waited, Mr. Watts began to read: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” So began his reading of the first chapter of Great Expectations, which he described to the children as “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.” He then told the class that he would read the book aloud to them each day, one chapter at a time, such that they would finish it together in 59 days.
Jones once again illustrates the fact that Mr. Watts’s culture and the villagers’ culture use completely different points of reference. For Mr. Watts, Charles Dickens is a household name everybody is expected to know. For the children and their families, Mr. Dickens is an unknown entity. By reading Great Expectations aloud to the class, though, Mr. Watts attempts to bridge these kinds of gaps, introducing one culture to the other and thus establishing common ground between the two.