The smartest girl in the first grade: Scout Finch

I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird lately, by which I mean I read a paperback version put out for the 50th anniversary and then I listened to the audio book and then I started the audio book back at the beginning all over again. Children crave the comfort of repetition. They will make you read the same book or play the same movie over and over until they have it memorized. Studies show they learn something new with each repetition. They unravel some new mystery. They absorb some new meaning. This is what I am doing, returning to this favorite book of my childhood, absorbing it, breathing it, living it, unraveling it through nothing more than a simple drive toward the comfort of the familiar.

If you are white and Southern and a girl child reading this book, as far as you are concerned, you are Scout. You don’t merely identify with Scout. You are Scout. Recently, at a book club meeting where we discussed this book, a friend said that in reading it again as an adult, she realized that she was no longer Scout. She had become Miss Maudie. I was not willing to concede this point, that perhaps I too was now more akin to Maudie than Scout, until at least the third run-through in a row. It’s true, though. I am now the lady across the street watching other people’s children play. And without question, Atticus has no bigger fan.

The story was not about Atticus when I was a child, but now it is. Who knew there were really any grown-up characters in it? Ah, but Atticus. What a wise and kind man. If only we could all find our inner Atticus. If only we could all learn what it really means to turn the other cheek and to do what’s right no matter the personal sacrifice.

None of that meant too much to me as a child, though. I was Scout, and since I had a brother, he was Jem.

I can only compare the events in the story to my own childhood in the most general sense. I’m not going to try to draw parallels between any particular event in my life and the trial of Tom Robinson. That would be disingenuous and not quite the point. It’s enough to say that Harper Lee describes a society I know and understand, and the people Jem and Scout are in this story are the people I wanted to believe I and my brother were in our own childhoods.

There is one particular scene, however, in which I experience my own special empathy with Scout. She gets in trouble her first day of first grade for already knowing how to read. According to Jem, she’s always known how to read. She’s some sort of prodigy who absorbed reading well before her time just from sitting in her father’s lap every night as he read the newspaper out loud.

I was no prodigy. Whatever I went to the first grade already knowing that I wasn’t supposed to know yet was deliberately thrust upon me. My brother started first grade two years ahead of me, you see, and he came home determined that when it was my turn I would be the smartest girl there. He taught me all he knew, and in doing so convinced me that classrooms themselves were nothing more than extraneous. It’s no wonder I believed I was Scout. The book starts with her concluding that she’ll be better off keeping up her reading at home than trying to do things the teacher’s way. I too started my formal education believing myself to be more of an independent scholar.

I can’t say I ever changed my mind about that, and I’m pretty sure Scout never would have either. You do learn more reading on your own than following anyone else’s educational dictates. You even learn more when all you are doing is reading and rereading the same old favorite like a child just trying to stumble through a dark and crazy world.

Today I’ve been wondering what Scout Finch looks like or what a kid like me looks like when she shows up in a college English class. Atticus cuts deals with Scout to convince her to stick with the first grade. My parents begged, bribed, blackmailed, and threatened me.

I think we turned out okay, Scout and I.

Here’s to the independent learner. Here’s to the student who deliberately reads the wrong story in the literature book just because it looks more interesting than the assignment. Here’s to the one who reads enough sources to complete ten research papers but never sees the need to turn in the one that was required. Here’s to the one who switches topics in the middle of an essay exam.

God love ’em. These students might not ever find their way through to get along with school, but God love ’em. I sure do. Each in his or her own way, they were almost certainly the smartest kids in the first grade.