Until the publication of "Go Set a Watchman" last year, the first draft of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," it had been a while since I'd thought about the author and her classic book. As an English teacher, I'd taught "To Kill a Mockingbird" to high school sophomores, but the last time I was in a classroom was almost 17 years ago.
It was a while ago, but I have fond memories of teaching that book because it was always a lively discussion starter. The book is full of memorable quotes and wisdom and the students learned far more than protagonist, antagonist, plot and theme. Here are just a few things that stood out every time I taught "To Kill a Mockingbird."
1. Never judge a book by its cover — or its thickness. When I would hand the book out to my students, their reaction was almost always the same. They would take one look at the 31 chapters and moan about how long it was. By the end, though, most of them would be won over by the story of Scout, Jem, their father Atticus — who valiantly fights a losing battle but wins the respect of his children — and their scary neighbor Boo Radley. The story changed my students, and the length of the book did as well; my students were more likely to chose longer books for their independent study reports after this novel.
2. Fundamentalism can be damaging. The character of Boo Radley scares the children because he rarely comes out of the house and when he does, he's creepy. But Boo is the product of a home where the Bible is taken literally. He has been raised with fear, hate and violence, all justified by religion. A neighbor, trying to explain why Boo is so odd, tells Scout and Jem: "Sometimes the Bible in the hands of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hands of — oh your father." I was teaching in a private Christian school when I taught "To Kill a Mockingbird," and this was a surprising idea to many of my students. How could the Bible be worse than whiskey? The concept that fundamental religion can be dangerous wasn't something my students in the mid-'90s — yes, long before Sept. 11, 2001 — were familiar with.
3. Courage means doing the right thing, even if you don't think there's a chance you'll succeed. Atticus tells Scout that real courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." He wasn't referring to himself as courageous, but readers know Atticus embodies this kind of courage when he defends an innocent black man who is being tried for raping a white woman. He knows that the man will be found guilty, but he not only defends him, he shows him and his family respect throughout.
4. Books can be a bridge to another time and place. When I introduced my students to Emily Dickinson and her poem "There is No Frigate Like a Book," the experience of reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" helped them understand the poem. The poem compares a book to a method of traveling that takes the reader to lands never actually visited. "To Kill a Mockingbird" took my students into the past into a culture they had never experienced. It took them to a time of of overt racism and discrimination — and they got emotional over the racism. It also took them to a time when children were expected to be seen and not heard. They were expected to entertain themselves and to spend their summer days outside with no adult supervision, something my students hadn't experienced as children.
5. Every once in a while, the movie does a book justice. Whenever I showed a movie based on a book covered in class, I always did so after the final test. I never wanted students to confuse details from the book with details from the movie, especially since the movie might not be true to the book or as good as the book. The 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" starring Gregory Peck is excellent and true to Lee's story. It may not include every detail of the book — no film adaptation ever does — but it more than captures the complex, memorable characters, the racism and racial tensions of the time period as well as the other themes in the book. If you want to do something to commemorate Harper Lee's passing, watching the movie adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" would be a satisfying way to do it.
I'm thankful I had the opportunity to introduce this book to my students so it could influence them ‚ and me. It's a powerful book. In fact, President Obama spoke about that power in a Facebook post after Lee's death:
But what that one story did, more powerfully than 100 speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves. Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.
Ms. Lee changed America for the better. And there is no higher tribute we can offer her than to keep telling this timeless American story — to our students, to our neighbors, and to our children — and to constantly try, in our own lives, to finally see each other.
If you've never read "To Kill a Mockingbird," pick up a copy. You'll be amazed at how much you learn.