As you know, Harper Lee died yesterday. Wow, I don’t know where to begin here. What can I say that doesn’t seem like plagiarism? I feel like paraphrasing Reverend Sykes after Atticus lost the Robinson case: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Ms. Lee’s passing.”
Harper Lee was a woman who famously shunned the spotlight after To Kill A Mockingbird. She didn’t want to be a household name. She just wanted to be who she was: a Southern woman who saw a need to be filled, namely that of building bridges across class and racial lines. However, Lee didn’t try to nudge away reality. She knew there were some bridges which would never be more than tightropes because of plain old snotty, warty human nature. She also knew that in the end, we all have to do the best we can, and that’s exactly what Ms. Lee did.
I first came across To Kill A Mockingbird in the eighth grade. Remember those big, heavy anthologies we used to read out of? The one at my school had a good-sized chunk of Mockingbird in it, complete with stills from the movie. Mostly of a bunch of kids in a yard swinging on a tire swing or peering up at grownups talking to them from a porch. I remember giving it a passing glance, but not really thinking much about it, since I was too busy being a nutty junior higher. Why would I want to read about kids sitting around a yard? It felt (and looked) too much like visiting my great-grandma in Kansas.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that Mockingbird got me, or rather, I got it. As often happens to teenagers, I didn’t have a choice—we read it in my AP English class—and it didn’t take me long to get sucked into Scout and Jem’s world. I don’t recall what did it. Maybe it was the kids daring each other to touch the Radley house, or maybe it was the wry humor that pervades the pages. It could also have been the familiarity in the way the characters talked, which reminded me of relatives on both sides of my family. It could have been the towering Atticus Finch, or the wise and peppery Miss Maudie. Any number of factors.
I think what really sold me were the overall themes of Mockingbird: empathy and integrity. The novel issues powerful challenges to both characters and readers alike. By defending Tom Robinson, Atticus did what was morally right instead of succumbing to what he called “Maycomb’s usual disease,” which was basically shunning anyone who didn’t fit the mold. He told the jury, “In the name of God, do your duty,” because he knew that no matter how sleazy Robert Ewell was, and how fake Mayella’s testimony was, the jury would be too blinded by Tom’s skin color to perceive his innocence. Atticus all but pleaded with them, to no avail, and Jem cried with frustration and anger when the jury pronounced Tom guilty.
Another character who didn’t fit the mold was Dolphus Raymond, who is minor, but still important in that he serves to show how royally people can get each other wrong. He was married to a black woman, lived among black people, and went around drinking something out of a paper bag with two straws sticking out of it. Everyone thought he was a drunk, until one day when he let Scout and Dill in on a little secret: All he was drinking was Coca-Cola. Aghast, the kids asked why Mr. Raymond pretended to be drunk, and he told them it gave folks a way to explain why he lived the way he did. In essence, this allowed Raymond to fly under the radar and do what he liked. Instead of living a lie, he was able to be completely honest with himself.
Scout herself learns what prejudice is like on her first day of school. Miss Caroline, the teacher, hailed from a county full of people her class regarded as eccentric, and she expected the kids to be a simple little group of cherubs. As it was, a boy cussed her out when she tried to make him stay past roll call, another boy refused to let her pay for his lunch, and then there was the especial bane of the class, Scout Finch. Scout’s crime was nothing less than already knowing how to read. To Scout’s horror, Miss Caroline told her that she had learned wrong and had to stop reading at home. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I had teachers who believed kids learning anywhere but school was a cardinal sin, and I was one of those who learned to read on my own. Maybe these people were intimidated by the idea of a child not needing to be taught, or a child who was ahead just plain took the wind out of their sails. I think in a lot of cases it was both. Anyway, that’s when Atticus told Scout what most people take away from Mockingbird: You never really get to know a person until you climb in his shoes and walk around in them. In this case, Scout was to have empathy for her teacher, who was just out of school, in a new town, and probably scared out of her wits to be teaching her first class. In this way, Scout would be able to get along with her teacher and still be herself.
At the same time, however, Mockingbird acknowledged that getting along isn’t always possible, and getting along doesn’t necessarily mean being bosom buddies. This didn’t always refer to unsavory types like the Ewells either, but to families who were just different. When Scout said at home that she wanted to play with a boy from her class, she was told this boy would never be the same as she was, even if he were scrubbed up and put in a new suit. His dad would be allowed to call on business, and they could be good neighbors, but that was all. The two families simply had characteristics that kept them from meshing as friends.
I know scenarios like these well. The same year I read Mockingbird, my AP English teacher showed a movie in class to illustrate black humor–Airplane. I had never seen it, and I quickly hated it. Some of you may find that hilarious, which is okay. It’s just not my cup of tea. I tried to read, but it didn’t help. I actually felt queasy because I wanted to be out of there so badly. The last day we watched it, we had a sub, and I asked if I could go to the library. She was a nice older lady, and she immediately said yes (Incidentally, she was surprised that a movie like Airplane was being shown at school). When my teacher got back on Monday, he was not happy to say they least, and the whole rest of the school year he had it in for me. It got so bad that my parents wrote a letter to the principal telling him what was going on, and long story short, this teacher got a huge dressing down. We weren’t after the guy’s job, but a teacher harassing a student over something as trivial as not watching a movie is inexcusable.
I’m not trying to hold myself up as a paragon of virtue here, but would it have been better for me to pretend to laugh just so I wouldn’t stand out? I couldn’t do it. I have never been able to act like I believe something is true when I really don’t. Not that I say everything that comes into my head, which can be just as bad as lying, but it’s hard to tell non-truths to keep the peace when there are issues that need to be dealt with. It’s not an easy way to live, especially when people who don’t understand view me as some kind of troublemaker (and there have been lots of those, LOL). That’s why for me, Mockingbird was cathartic, and still is. I think it’s something God has used to encourage me to be honest and do what I need to do instead of what the world expects me to do. When it comes down to it, I prefer to be called a troublemaker than a liar or a toadie.
It wouldn’t be hard to go on and on about the ways in which To Kill A Mockingbird resonated with me, but if I did, we’d be here until Doomsday. Suffice it to say, I know these few snapshots from the book are not exactly linked, or even chronological, but they illustrate the overlying message of the novel*. There are very few people who haven’t struggled to be themselves and do what’s right, versus what’s expected. Sometimes being the best people we can be involves breaking from the pack, and that’s just not in our nature. We want to fit in, and keep conflict to a minimum, but it’s not that simple. Breaking from the pack can be inevitable, though, particularly when it comes to standing up to evil in the world. Maybe society doesn’t progress as a whole by this happening, but individuals do, and that’s how change starts. Harper Lee understood this, and it is, in a nutshell, what makes To Kill A Mockingbird a unique and weighty novel.
Rest in peace, Ms. Lee, and thank you.
*Plus I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it.