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What Important Lessons do the Children Learn in Part I of “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

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The book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, was written by Harper Lee in 1960, and was based on her previous experiences as a child. She was a tomboy as a child and was friends with Truman Capote, who later provided a base for the character of Dill. When she was five years old, a trial began accusing nine black men raping two white women. Although medical evidence proved the women had not been raped, the men were still found guilty. Fortunately all but one of them were freed or paroled, and this case left a deep impression on Lee, later using it as an outline for the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

The novel was set in the American South in the early 1930’s, when the issues that had been fought over in the American Civil War were still present in the South. This was the treatment of black people, because the South had believed that they were to be kept as slaves but the North disagreed. When the North won, the South still were prejudiced towards them. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is set in the Southern state of Alabama, in a fictitious place called Maycomb. There was a lot of prejudice here, mostly racial, although some white people treated black people with the respect they deserved.

The novel is written through the eyes of a young girl called Scout, who grows up in Maycomb County, with her brother Jem and their friend Dill. This allows us to gain an understanding of the innocence of childhood and how the perception of a situation through the eyes of a child can differ from that of an adult. The way that the book has been written also lets us into the thoughts of a child as she is learning important lessons in life. The way that I am writing this essay will look through the different areas of life that Scout, Jem and Dill learns lessons in.

The book begins in summer, a few weeks before Scout id due to start school. We learn that she is very excited to start school when she says:

“I never looked forward more to anything in my life. Hours of wintertime had found me in the tree-house looking over at the school yard, spying on multitudes of children…I longed to join them.”

However, on her first morning she realises that when Jem says “school’s different” he was right. Firstly, she has been warned by Jem, who is quite happy to play with her out of school, to leave him alone while they are there. He is also reluctant to take her to school and only agrees when he gets paid but he has done things for her happily in the past. When Scout arrives at school she realises that it does not live up to her expectations. Her class have a new, young teacher, Miss Caroline, who came from North Alabama and had been taught a new way of teaching at college which Jem referred to as the ‘Dewey Decimal System’, although this is the way in which books are catalogued in libraries. This new system involved holding up ‘flashcards’ with words and pictures on them so that the class could learn what things were called. Miss Caroline also read a story about cats that can talk.

Miss Caroline thinks that this will be interesting for the children but Scout realises that none of them liked it, having ‘chopped cotton and fed hogs fro the time they were able to walk’, so did not really need this sort of story to be told to them as it could not help them in any way. Scout is told off for being able to read and write and Miss Caroline wants her to tell Atticus not to teach her anymore, saying “I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage”. It was a good thing that Scout could read and write, but Miss Caroline does not think so. This was because she wanted to teach all the children the same and did not take their personalities or backgrounds into account when teaching them and treats them all on the same level. However, they are not because some of the children had already been in this grade and some of them had been taught nothing at all, so they needed to start off at different points.

When Miss Caroline is holding up flashcards, Scout says ‘I was bored, so began a letter to Dill.’ She realises that this teaching will not help her. Miss Caroline also does not understand about the different families and their morals, like when Miss Caroline tries to give Walter Cunningham some money for his lunch, Scout says, “…you’ll get to know all the country folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back”. Scout realises that Miss Caroline is new to the county so does not know the ways of everyone here. Scout has been brought up by her father Atticus, who is very fair minded and treats everybody as individuals, so Scout acts like this too. When Scout starts second grade, they still do not read and write and the routine is still the same with the flashcards. The main lessons Scout learns from school are that not everybody treats everyone as individuals because they do not understand the ways in which different people have been brought up.

The children learn several ways in which they need to be tolerant to others. Scout learns that she needs to understand why other people do things. After her first day at school she was angry with Miss Caroline because when Scout had to explain about the Cunninghams not taking things that they couldn’t pay back Miss Caroline got annoyed with her. Atticus says that:

‘We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb’s ways in one day, and could not hold her responsible when she knew no better.’

She had not grown up in Maycomb, so was not accustomed to the different families and ways of life. Also, being told how things worked by a child must have been embarrassing and Scout learns that she must take this into account when Atticus tells her:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus teaches Scout to be tolerant of how other people are feeling and to always take this into account when thinking about their actions and how you should react. Before she has been told this though, the children invite Walter Cunningham round for lunch and when Walter pours syrup all over his meal she questions this. This is because she has been brought up in a different way to him but Scout does not realise this. Calpurnia says, “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us…but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t.” She needs to understand that Walter knows no better and this relates to when Atticus says, ‘could not hold her responsible when she knew no better’ but in Walter’s case it is not about knowing the ways of Maycomb, but about how he has been brought up and those ways have stuck.

When Atticus starts to defend Tom Robinson, Scout starts to get things said to her at school, like Cecil Jacobs says, ‘that Scout Finch’s daddy defended niggers.’ Scout, not knowing what he means, asks Atticus. He explains that he is defending Tom Robinson, and it is because ‘every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally.’ He explains that she might hear a lot of “ugly talk about it at school”, because the children of Maycomb always think that what their parents say is right. This is evident when Cecil Jacobs later says:

“My folks said your daddy was a disgrace an’ that nigger oughta hang from the water-tank.”

Atticus tells Scout that she must put up with this and not fight:

“you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change”

Atticus is a lawyer who is used to winning without fighting so he is trying to teach Scout this. He is telling her that people can say things but she is not to let them affect her because it doesn’t matter. She needs to learn to put up with what people say and to retaliate with words and not violence or just to ignore them. So Scout tells Cecil Jacobs to take it back but he replies with more insults. Usually she would start a fight but she walks away and he calls her a coward. She says:

‘Somehow, if I fought Cecil I would let Atticus down…I could take being called a coward for him.’

Scout is taught by Atticus to respect other people’s opinions when they are talking about what the town thinks of the case with Tom Robinson. Scout says that Atticus must be wrong to defend him because the rest of the town think that he is wrong and they are right so Atticus says:

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions…but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.”

He is saying that people can think what they like but he is doing this case because if he didn’t he would lose his respect as a lawyer and he would feel guilty if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson because no one else will, so he is not in a position to care what they think because he needs to care about what he thinks. Scout is learning about tolerating others, their actions and their thoughts, and about the importance of pride in not fighting and not letting people get to her, and loyalty to Atticus and doing what he has told her to.

Jem learns about tolerating others when he is made to read to Mrs Dubose. Scout tells us, very frankly, ‘Jem and I hated her’. This indicates how strongly and surely she feels of it and how hard it would be for them to get along with her. She was always shouting at them saying that their father could not look after them properly. Despite this, Atticus acts pleasant towards her, and his actions make Scout describe him as ‘the bravest man who ever lived’. Atticus tells Jem:

“She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.”

However, when she starts to criticise Atticus for defending Tom Robinson, he does not do what Atticus has said, but knocks all the heads off her white camellia flowers using the baton he has just bought for Scout, then he breaks the baton, even though he had used some of his birthday money to buy it for her. This shows his anger because he felt cross enough to waste the money. His punishment is to read to Mrs Dubose, and when they go she listens for a bit, correcting his mistakes, then after a while she went into a fit and stopped listening. Scout realises that during the month that Jem must read to her she has been keeping them for a bit longer each day, and her fits were coming later.

When the month is up she requests to be read to for one more week and Jem reluctantly goes. During this week she had no fits and the alarm clock that meant they could go had stopped reading, and instead she would tell them when to go. One evening, a while after they had finished the five weeks of reading to her, Atticus goes to her house and returns with the news that she is dead. He explains that her fits were because she had been a morphine addict but had stopped taking it so she could die in control of herself. He describes her as courageous saying, “I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her…I wanted you to see what real courage is”. He also gives him a box containing a white camellia which is a peace offering from Mrs Dubose. Jem learns, from this experience, that he must tolerate the views of others, even if they are different and make you angry, because he may not understand the circumstances of which they are said fully, and he also learns about what true bravery is – Mrs Dubose trying to live with her illness so she can die free from her addiction, even though she knows it will cause her pain.

Jem, Scout and Dill all learn from Atticus that they need to respect Boo Radley’s wishes to stay in the house. They play a game about the family together, in which they re-enact all the major events of the family’s history. The children also try different ways of communicating with Boo Radley. This is because they did not understand that he wanted to stay indoors and they were intrigued by the mystery about him. The children know that what they are doing is wrong because they have to cover it up with lies. When Atticus asks if their game has anything to do with the Radleys, Jem denies it but he is embarrassed about it. Scout knows that Atticus does not want them to play the game again so is reluctant to join in when Jem and Dill carry on. When Atticus catches them trying to give a note to Boo, he feels he needs to tell them to stop, instead of trying to let them see what damage they are doing for themselves. He said:

‘If he wanted to come out, he would. If he wanted to stay inside his own house he had the right to stay inside free from the attentions of inquisitive children…What Mr Radley did might seem peculiar to us, but it did not seem peculiar to him.’

He is using the idea of considering things from another person’s point of view, telling the children that they need to understand this is the way that he lives so to let him do what he wants because he cannot live the way they do in society. The children learn that Boo has lived this way for many years so their attempts at getting him to come out of the house will not work, because he cannot change what he is used to.

The children learn about looking after others in several ways. When Scout and Jem bring home the air rifles they received for Christmas at Finch’s Landing, they are told to only shoot at tin cans, but Atticus knows that they will try to shoot birds. He says:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Mockingbirds are harmless because all they do is sing, whereas bluejays mess up people’s crops and destroy their gardens. Atticus uses this not just for the air rifles but also as a metaphor. Boo Radley is innocent and would never hurt anybody so he is warning them to leave him alone. He is also referring to the person he is defending, Tom Robinson. He is saying that people shouldn’t harm him because he has done nothing wrong but instead they should punish the people who are lying to make him look guilty, and he shouldn’t be persecuted just because of the colour of his skin. The children learn that they should always be fair and look after those who are innocent and protect them from people that try to harm them.

Scout learns that she should love everybody from Atticus. People, like Mrs Dubose and her second cousin Francis, call Atticus and his family ‘nigger-lovers’. Whilst Jem and Scout were still reading to Mrs Dubose, Scout asks Atticus what it means and he explains that it is a term people use when they think that others are favouring black people above white people. He is being called it because the case of Tom Robinson is against a white family, the Ewells. She asks if he is one and he replies:

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody…I’m hard put sometimes.”

He is not a ‘nigger-lover’ in most people’s understanding of the term, but in a real sense of it because he does love Negroes, just as he likes everyone else.

The children learn a lot from their father from the ‘mad dog’ incident. When the children encounter the mad dog they realise that it is a very serious thing. Scout says:

‘Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent’

Scout is describing how nature and things they cannot control are reflecting the mood of the people in the street. The fact the mockingbirds had stopped singing is significant because mockingbirds always sing joyously. Perhaps this wasn’t too obvious at the time but Scout could feel that there was something different happening, and because in this book mockingbirds are a metaphor for people like Boo Radley, who are innocent and do no harm, it shows that their lives would be very different without them.

They had previously come to the conclusion that their father could not do anything – he worked in an office, he didn’t hunt, he could not see very well, and he said he was too old to play football. The children question other people about his talents. Miss Maudie tells Scout that he can play checkers well and he can play a jew’s harp, which is a small, palm-sized musical instrument, however Scout is not impressed. Calpurnia said that he could do lots of things but could not specifically say what. When the dog is coming up the street, Mr Tate hands Atticus the rifle to shoot it with. Scout says, ‘Jem and I nearly fainted’ because she has never known of her father to shoot anything so she does not understand why the sheriff would hand him the gun.

After shooting the dog, Mr Tate comments on Atticus’s aim being a little to the right, and he replies, “Always was…If I had my ‘druthers I’d take a shotgun.” This implies that he has been shooting for a long time and even has preferences of guns, but the children have never seen him with a gun before. Scout description of her brother was ‘Jem was paralysed’, and when they reach Atticus Jem goes to ask his father about it but decides against it in the end because he is still too shocked. Atticus even has a nickname, ‘One-Shot Finch’, which shows that he must have used to shoot a lot. Atticus does not seem to want to explain to the children; when Miss Maudie calls him by his nickname they do not say anything, just look at each other, and when Mr Tate is about to tell Jem about Atticus shooting, Atticus tells him to be quiet. The children are obviously now impressed with their father’s talent because Jem says:

“all of a sudden he just relaxed all over, an’ it looked like that gun was a part of him…an’ he did it so quick, like…I hafta aim for ten minutes ‘fore I can hit somethin’…”

Jem’s description is another way that we know that Atticus is used to shooting because he seemed very comfortable with the gun in his hand. Miss Maudie tells them that he “was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time.” She also explains why he does not go hunting anymore:

“I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”

Atticus says he loves all everybody, but he could not say this while he went out hunting because he was killing innocent creatures like doves, but he had to shoot the dog to protect the rest of the neighbourhood. Scout says that she is going to tell everyone at school, showing her pride, but Jem tells her not to because he says if Atticus had wanted them to know then he would have told them, so he mustn’t be proud of it himself. Since Scout did not think of this it shows us that she still has not grasped the idea of considering things from another person’s point of view. Atticus refers to the incident later, when Mrs Dubose has just died. He said, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” He is not proud of shooting the dog and does not find it courageous, because he has killed something that could not protect itself, and had no one else to save it. He gave it no choice to die, whereas Mrs Dubose chose to die in pain free of morphine. The children learn that they should appreciate their father, because people can have hidden talents, and also that he was not proud of his ability to shoot, because it went against his beliefs about loving everyone and protecting those that were harmless.

During the first part of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the children learn many important lessons. Most of them come from their father, Atticus, because the children in Maycomb County grow up with the same beliefs as their parents, and also because Atticus was a very fair person who was able to explain his opinions clearly but also allowing people to make their own minds up.

The main lesson Scout learns from school is that some people do not treat others as individuals, with their own customs, because they do not take into account the backgrounds of people and the way in which they have been brought up. Miss Caroline came from Winston County, which was more industrialised than Maycomb County, and Scout describes the people there as ‘persons of no background’. This shows that Miss Caroline would not be used to people making a living in different ways and having different views, and since she is new to Maycomb she does not realise that they need to be treated differently.

The children learn several lessons about tolerating others. Scout realises that she needs to try and consider things from other people’s point of view, and to always take their feelings into account. She also learns about having pride in herself and staying loyal to Atticus. Jem and Scout learn about how other people’s views may differ to their own and they needs to respect their views because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. They also learn about real bravery and how Mrs Dubose chose to die in control of her life. Scout, Jem and Dill learn about respect for how Boo feels, because Atticus tells them to stop tormenting him because it was his choice to stay in the house and they needed to understand that Boo had chosen to stay in the house of his own accord so if he wanted to come out, he would.

The things the children learn about loving others and protecting them comes from the phrase ‘it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’. Scout and Jem are taught that they should not harm innocent creatures and should protect them from those who want to cause them harm. This can be related to them tormenting Boo Radley, and also the Ewell family prosecuting Tom Robinson. Scout also learns from Atticus to love everyone, and that if people want to call them meaningless names then she should let them because terms like ‘nigger-lover’ don’t really mean anything so cannot hurt her.

From the ‘mad dog’ incident the children learn that their father does have talents and is able to make them proud, but they did not know it. He chose to stop shooting because he wanted to protect harmless creatures from being killed and he chose not to tell the children so that they would not grow up thinking that it was courageous to kill creatures who have no choice, but rather that Mrs Dubose was brave because she knew she was going to die so chose to learn to control herself before the end even if it did mean dying in pain.

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