To Kill A Mockingbird:

Atticus Has To Punish Me


Atticus was a gentle but firm father. He taught Jem and me by example. He could never be accused of being one of those 'do as I say rather than what I do' kind of fathers. Atticus had never whipped Jem and me. He had survived on mere threats up until now. He realized that I minded him as well as I could, and he knew I did my best. However, one spring afternoon, when I was 8 years old, my inability to control my temper made me cross the line.

I. My Promise

Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more. I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot... Cecil Jacobs *made* me forget. He had announced in the schoolyard the day before that Scout Finch's daddy defended niggers. I did not really understand what Cecil meant, but I denied it anyway. And then I asked Atticus about it that night.

"Atticus, do you defend niggers?" I asked. "Don't say nigger, Scout", Atticus demanded. I said, "It 's what everybody at school says." Atticus said, "From now on it'll be everybody less one." I promised not to say nigger again, but I still wanted to know if Atticus defended niggers. Cecil Jacobs made it sound like Atticus was running a still. Atticus sighed, "I'm simply defending a Negro-his name's Tom Robinson. Scout, you aren't old enough to understand some things yet, but there's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man."

Then I asked him why he was defending him if folks says he shouldn't. Atticus continued, "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again. I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one's mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: 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 . . . it's a good one, even if it does resist learning."

I forced myself to make the promise to Atticus. I promised him I wouldn't fight anymore. That would be tough to do. Now everybody at school would call me a coward. Everyone would know that Scout Finch doesn't fight anymore because her daddy won't let her. I had never backed down from a fight yet.

II. My Broken Promise

Things had really heated up around town with the upcoming trial. Every other day someone at school would holler that Atticus defended niggers or that he was a nigger-lover. Jem was good at ignoring that kind of talk. But he had the advantage of being older, and Jem had always had the ability to keep his temper in check better than I did. I went to school everyday and tried to keep my head held high and my fists down. But, I loved my daddy. I didn't want anyone talking about him, even if he didn't care. I cared enough for all of us. My blood was starting to boil over. It wouldn't be long before I exploded on somebody.

Jem was usually around in the schoolyard. He would tell me to ignore the remarks and go on playing. I hated school anyway. School was so silly. Atticus taught me everything I needed to know. Miss Caroline was an awful teacher, and she and I hadn't gotten along since my first day of first grade. She didn't want Atticus teaching me to read because she said it was her job. Heck, Atticus could teach me better than her any day of the week.

Atticus and I made a compromise. I would continue to go to school, and we would continue to read every night just as we'd always done since I was a baby. That compromise was getting about as hard to keep as my promise not to get into fights. I tried everything to get Atticus to see that I didn't need to go to school. I took up cussing and explained that I learned to talk that way at school in hopes of being kept home. Nothing I did worked. Atticus insisted on my going to school. Man, was I miserable!

That Cecil Jacobs had been a thorn in my side all year long. Every since that day that I wouldn't fight him, he had called me a coward. All the kids had. I had a reputation for being tough and gritty. Now they knew my daddy wouldn't let me fight. So, they commenced to calling him a coward too. It was way into spring, and school was almost out. Tom Robinson's trial would start that summer. I knew I only had a few more weeks to go. If I could hold back that long, I'd be out of school for the summer.

Jem told me everyday to try and make it a little longer. Jem knew of the promise I had made Atticus, and Jem didn't want to see me get in trouble. Jem and I had our fights, but we were very close. Jem always looked out for me. Sometimes he did it a little too good and got real bossy. I hated that, but Atticus told me I didn't have to mind Jem unless Jem could make me. And Jem couldn't make me do anything. That hadn't changed and never would.

Three weeks before school was to be let out for the summer I finally had enough of this Scout Finch is a coward business. I had decided that getting back at Cecil Jacobs and proving myself was worth a licking. A licking would hurt, but it wouldn't last. I waited until we came in from the playground. That way Jem couldn't stop me. I had it all planned out. Cecil Jacobs would be sorry.

Before Miss Caroline came in, I went up to Cecil and said, "Cecil, I want you to say one more time that my daddy defends niggers!". Cecil obliged, "Your daddy sure does defend niggers, ugly greasy niggers. And he's no better than them. He's a nigger-lover. And he won't let poor little Scout fight. Your daddy's a coward, and so are you Scout!". I took my pencil and jabbed it as hard as I could into Cecil's arm. The lead broke off into his skin, and he began to cry.

"Who's the coward now crybaby?", I shouted. I then knocked Cecil to the ground and started pulling his hair. He screamed in agony, and I was loving myself. I pressed my knees into his stomach and pounded on him. I yelled, "If anybody else thinks Scout Finch is a coward, this will show 'em!". I bloodied Cecil's lip and blackened one of his eyes. About that time Miss Caroline walked in, and I was in big trouble. Somehow though, at that moment, I couldn't have cared less.

Miss Caroline was furious. "Who started this?", she asked. "Scout did", all the children said, "She attacked Cecil as soon as we came inside". "Is that true, Scout?", Miss Caroline asked. I triumphantly said, "It sure as hell is! Cecil had it coming. It's high time he stopped saying my daddy defended niggers!". Miss Caroline took me to the principal. There it was decided that I would be sent home for the day.

The principal summoned Atticus to the school. The principal and Miss Caroline told him what I had done. Atticus turned and looked at me with disappointment. "Is this true, Scout?", he asked. "Yes sir", I answered softly. Atticus told them he wanted to take me home immediately. He asked them to get word to Jem that he would be walking home alone this afternoon. "Come on, Scout. I'm taking you home. You and I have a lot to talk about", he said sternly.

III. I Learn My Lesson

Atticus and I walked home that spring afternoon. He kept his hand on my shoulder. It was silent until I asked, "Atticus, are you mad at me?". "I am indeed, and very disappointed. I thought we had an agreement. You made me a promise, Scout, that you weren't going to start anymore fights," he said. I said, "I know Atticus, but that Cecil Jacobs kept egging me on. It's his fault. I couldn't let him think I was a coward. I couldn't let him beat me". Atticus stopped and looked down at me. "A person only beats you when they make you lose your temper. Once you lose your temper, the other party has won", he said. I put my head down, and we resumed walking.

I couldn't help but wonder what Atticus was going to do to me when we got home. He had promised to wear me out. In my whole 8 years he had never laid a hand on me, although he seemed to threaten it every other day. Whenever Jem and I had to get a licking, Calpurnia did it. This time was different though. I could see it in his eyes. Atticus would do it this time. He *was* my daddy, and I suppose it was his place above anyone's to do the job.

As we neared the house and were about to go inside I stopped, looked up at him, and asked, "Atticus, are you going to give me a licking?". I was teary-eyed already. Atticus looked like he had been punched in the stomach. He stayed silent a few seconds and had a grim face. He stared at me and finally said, "Yes". That's all he said and then put his hand on my shoulder and continued up the porch.

I didn't want to cry. I wanted to be tough. Atticus stopped right before we got to the door. "Scout, you knew what to expect. I told you I'd wear you out if you started another fight. And this fight was worse than ever", Atticus explained. It was almost as if he was apologizing for having to whip me.

We went inside, and Atticus told me to go upstairs and wait in my room. I was really scared. We had never done this before, and it was new.

Atticus came in and sat on my bed. "Scout, before I do this I want to make sure you understand why I have to do it. I told you not to start anymore fights no matter what Cecil Jacobs or any other kid said to you. And you made me a promise that you wouldn't. Now I know things have been hard on you and Jem these last few weeks because of my defending Tom Robinson, but that's no excuse for behaving like you did today. I can't have that and won't have it anymore. Scout, I have no problem with you defending yourself against a schoolyard bully. You have to stand up for yourself, but starting a fight is altogether different. I told you to ignore Cecil Jacobs. I told you that you'd be better off fighting with your head. But, you chose not to do that, and that's why I've got to punish you" he said.

All I could say was "Yes Sir", and I kept my head down. Atticus lifted my head up and said, "We have to do this, Scout. I don't want to, but it's my responsibility to make sure you learn the right ways in life". There was a few seconds pause. Then Atticus said, "Bend over my knee, and let's get this over with". He guided me over his knee. I was crying by this time. Atticus was also on the verge of tears. He'd rather have cut off his right hand than use it to lick me. I was over his knee and gazing at the floor. After all these years, I was finally going to get a licking from Atticus. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. Atticus took out his hankerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow.

Then Atticus proceeded to try to whip me. And I mean *try*. He gave me probably 5 or 6 licks, but they barely stung. I cried because it hurt my feelings, but my behind had been spared. I knew he had lost his nerve and had decided to go easy on me. It was over in less than a minute.

"Stand up, Scout", he said. I stood up in front of him. "Now Scout, I don't want to ever hear of you starting a fight again. You are too big and too mature for such behavior. You have a good head, Scout. I want you to start using it. You can accomplish a great deal more if you fight with your mind. Am I getting through to you, Scout?", he said. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and could see the tears in his. "Yes Sir", I said, still crying. "That's good to hear. I hope we'll never have to do this again. You behave yourself, Scout, and we never will", he said.

Atticus then left my room to give me time to compose myself and to give him time to compose himself. The deed he had just performed was harder on him than it was on me. Later Atticus came back, and we discussed the matter further. Everything was fine again. I sure did like it better when we were friends.


Atticus had said once that I minded him as well as I could. I knew that he had punished me as well as *he* could. That was the only time Atticus ever whipped me. In fact, he never even threatened it again. Still, nobody ever forgot it. This time I was able to keep my promise to Atticus about not fighting. It was primarily out of respect for him. I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about. After all, Atticus was the smartest person I knew, and disappointing him was really the worst punishment I could get. And I also figured that if Atticus ever had to whip me for fighting again that he'd probably do it a lot harder next time! Having that thought in the back of my mind sure did help me to keep those fists down.