Scout finds and beats Walter in the schoolyard until Jem pulls her off. She explains the situation to Jem, who realizes that Walter is Mr. Cunningham’s son, invites Walter for lunch, and assures him that Scout won’t jump him. Jem boasts about having touched the Radley house on the way home. At the table, Atticus and Walter discuss farming. Walter asks if there’s any syrup and Calpurnia brings him the pitcher. He pours it over his plate until Scout asks what he’s doing, at which point he puts it down and looks ashamed. Atticus shakes his head at Scout and Calpurnia calls Scout into the kitchen. Calpurnia scolds Scout for her rudeness, so Scout brings her plate into the kitchen. Scout scathingly tells Calpurnia that Calpurnia has already gotten her in trouble today for teaching her to write.
Again, Scout betrays how uncomfortable she is with difference of any sort when she calls Walter out for pouring syrup over his entire plate. This is something she’d never do but, presumably, is something normal in the Cunningham home. When Calpurnia is the primary one to scold Scout for this, it situates her in more of a parental role, not just the role of the Finches’ cook. In this sense, Calpurnia is one of the most important people in Scout’s life, as she’s one in charge of helping Scout develop her moral compass and figuring out how to deal with difference when she encounters it.
After lunch, Scout tells Atticus that Calpurnia is horrible and asks him to fire her. Atticus stonily refuses, so Scout concentrates on hating Calpurnia the entire way back to school. In class, Miss Caroline shrieks and boys crowd around her, looking for a mouse. She shakily points to a hulking boy and says that “it” crawled out of the boy’s hair. Little Chuck Little assures Miss Caroline that she shouldn’t be afraid of cooties (lice), fetches her water, and steers her to her desk. Miss Caroline ascertains that the boy with the cooties is named Burris Ewell. He doesn’t know how to spell his name and is filthy. Miss Caroline asks him to go home to treat his scalp and to bathe before returning.
Scout’s narration draws out the differences between the Cunninghams and the Ewells: while Walter is clean for his first day of school, Burris is filthy. This introduces Scout to the idea that there are different levels of poverty in her small town, and a variety of different ways of dealing with that poverty among families. Miss Caroline’s reaction, meanwhile, leaves much to be desired and shows again how poorly prepared the school system is to serve all the children in it.
Burris stands and laughs rudely. He says that he’s already done his time, and another classmate explains to Miss Caroline that the Ewell children come every year for the first day of school but don’t come back. He says that Mr. Ewell is contentious, and that they have no mother. Miss Caroline asks Burris to sit back down, but he looks suddenly enraged. Chuck tells Miss Caroline to let Burris go and she takes his side. Burris slouches to the door and once out of range, he hurls insults and slurs at Miss Caroline until she cries. The students cluster around Miss Caroline’s desk and comfort her.
When the students have to comfort Miss Caroline and essentially deal with this problem child themselves, it makes it even clearer that the education system isn’t designed to either give teachers the tools to deal with all of their students, or to effectively educate the willing students. That the Ewells’ situation is common knowledge in Maycomb speaks again to the insular and close-knit nature of the town.
Scout races past the Radley Place that afternoon, feeling as gloomy as the house. She decides to run away and answers Atticus’s questions about school with one-word answers. Calpurnia is oddly kind to Scout and insists she missed Scout and Jem, so Scout decides that Calpurnia has realized the error of her ways. After dinner, Atticus grabs the paper and invites Scout to read with him. Feeling overwhelmed, she heads for the porch. Atticus follows. Scout insists she doesn’t feel well and can’t go to school, but finally tells him her tale and begs to not go back.
When Scout walks away from Atticus rather than read with him anyway, it makes it clear how much pressure she feels to conform and follow Miss Caroline’s directions. Her unhappiness about having to conform is an early indicator that the adult world is rooted in conformity, something that Scout, especially at this point, can’t deal with. In other situations, however, Scout is able to conform and understand her surroundings properly, as shown by her ability to navigate and explain Maycomb’s eccentricities.
Atticus tells her that she should try to climb into other people’s skin and walk around so she can consider things from their point of view. He points out that Miss Caroline had no idea she couldn’t give something to a Cunningham, so they can’t blame her for the mistake. Scout points out that Burris Ewell doesn’t have to go to school, so she shouldn’t have to go either. Atticus explains that the Ewell children don’t have to go because the Ewells have been the disgrace of Maycomb for generations. They live like animals and it’s silly to force them to go to school. He says that similarly, Mr. Ewell can hunt out of season because he spends his relief checks on whiskey and people don’t want the children to go hungry. Atticus agrees that they can keep reading but asks Scout to keep this from Miss Caroline.
Given Atticus’s calm, kind, and general willingness to see the best in others, the way that he describes Mr. Ewell is telling. It indicates that these are, even in his opinion, people beyond help and beyond the law. In particular, the fact that Mr. Ewell seems to flat-out refuse to feed his children situates him as an evil and selfish person. In contrast, the fact that Maycomb looks the other way when he hunts out of season makes the case that not all of Maycomb is bad; it can, in cases like these, rally around its most vulnerable members to afford them some kind of protection.