Dill returns home to Mississippi in early September. Scout is miserable until she remembers that she starts school in a week. Jem agrees to take Scout to school and explains that she can’t bother him at all because things are different at school. Scout learns that Jem is right almost immediately. Her teacher, Miss Caroline, is from Winston County, a peculiar place. After reading the class a silly story about talking cats, Miss Caroline prints the alphabet on the board. Nearly every student can read it since many failed first grade last year, but Miss Caroline asks Scout to read it aloud. Scout then reads most of her reading book and part of the newspaper. Miss Caroline is upset that Scout can read and tells her to tell Atticus to not teach her anymore. Scout isn’t sure what she did wrong—she can’t remember not knowing how to read.
Miss Caroline’s teaching methods show immediately that, within the world of the novel, school is silly for most children and forces them to conform rather than building on what they already know. Note, too, that Scout makes it clear that Miss Caroline is from Winston County, and therefore is an outsider who shouldn’t be taken seriously. This again illustrates how insular Maycomb is, while also making the case that Scout is missing out on opportunities to expand her horizons by writing off people from other places outright.
At recess, Jem finds Scout, and Scout explains her predicament. Jem assures her that Miss Caroline is introducing a new teaching method called the Dewey Decimal System, which Scout doesn’t question. Back in class, Miss Caroline waves cards printed with “cat,” “rat,” and other words. Scout is bored, so she begins a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline scolds Scout for writing in cursive, which she isn’t supposed to learn until the third grade. Scout explains that Calpurnia taught her cursive on rainy days to keep Scout out of her hair.
Jem’s announcement that Miss Caroline is teaching the Dewey Decimal System points to the fact that even though he’s older than Scout, he’s still a child and doesn’t know everything—the Dewey Decimal System is a system of organizing libraries, not of teaching. Scout’s willingness to buy this, meanwhile, points to her trust in her brother, as well as her youth.
Miss Caroline prepares the class for lunch by taking stock of who will go home to eat and who brought lunch. She notices that Walter Cunningham isn’t going home and doesn’t have a lunch. Walter quietly agrees that he forgot his lunch but refuses Miss Caroline’s offer of a quarter to eat downtown, to be paid back later. Scout notices that despite his poverty, Walter is clean and tidy. Someone hisses for Scout to explain the situation, so Scout raises her hand and announces that Walter is a Cunningham. She believes her meaning is clear—everyone knows that the Cunninghams have no money or extra food. At Miss Caroline’s prodding, Scout explains the Cunninghams won’t accept anything if they can’t pay people back. She tells the reader that last year, Atticus helped Mr. Cunningham with his entailment. Then, throughout the winter, Atticus found firewood and foodstuffs on his porch.
Scout, importantly, isn’t trying to embarrass Miss Caroline with her explanation of the Cunninghams’ situation—she’s trying to help her fit into Maycomb and understand some of the eccentricities. Scout’s confusion when Miss Caroline doesn’t immediately understand her intentions, however, reminds the reader that Scout doesn’t have a lot of experience dealing with outsiders who aren’t aware of how Maycomb works. She doesn’t yet have the skills to think about what Miss Caroline might not know or understand and to explain herself accordingly.
Atticus explained to Scout then that Mr. Cunningham was hit hard by the stock market crash but doesn’t want a WPA job since it’ll mean nobody will be around to work his land. Not being able to explain this as well as Atticus, Scout tells Miss Caroline that she’s shaming Walter since he can’t pay her back. Miss Caroline hauls Scout to the front of the room and asks her to hold out her hand. Scout is confused when Miss Caroline lightly taps Scout’s hand with a ruler. Children laugh when they realize Miss Caroline “whipped” Scout.
“Whipping” Scout like this makes the public school system look even more ridiculous, especially since Scout was only trying to help both her classmate and Miss Caroline fit in better. Scout’s understanding of the reasons why the Cunninghams are so poor, meanwhile, speaks to her precocity and her ability to understand complex concepts, even if she can’t figure out how to navigate school.