Monday, February 22, 2016

RIP Harper Lee: Thoughts on Reading and Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s hard to count how many times I’ve taught the now late Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird. It was in the 9th grade English curriculum the first year I taught—that crazy year I was also the JV girl’s volleyball coach back in Illinois. It was in the curriculum every year I taught 10th grade here in Texas. So if you multiply four or five sections times all those years, well, that’s a lot of Jem and Scout and Atticus and Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. A lot of fictional Maycomb. And honestly, a lot of reading passages aloud, not only because I believe in the power of reading words to students, many of whom over the years have rarely been read to growing up, but also because the cold hard reality of high school English is that many students never read what they’re assigned. Not ever. Even honors students. Sometimes especially honors students, which is another story entirely.

But Mockingbird. When you teach something that many times, when you re-read something that many times, it becomes part of you—the words, the rhythms, the characters, the joys and the tragedies of the story. I can recite large chunks of the book from memory. Sometimes when I’m writing my own books, a cadence floats in and I have to recognize it as Harper Lee’s and push it away. For me it’s like that with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby as well. I’ve read it so many, many times that it’s just a part of me.

I had to replace my original copy a few years ago when the yellowing pages started falling out from having been turned so many times. (Let me add here that there is nothing digital that can replace the true wonder of loving a physical book so much that it falls apart bit by bit, goes fragile and has to be held together with a rubber band.)

What passages are indelibly marked in my brain? So many. The opening, for one, that luscious, slow description of Maycomb, Alabama.  The scene where Atticus has to shoot Tim Johnson, the rabid dog. The courtroom scenes during Tom Robinson’s trial. Atticus’ closing speech. That brutal, awful moment when he has lost the case and is walking alone through the courtroom and up in the balcony Reverend Sykes tells Scout: “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” The goofiness with Dill. Scout’s progressive realization the Maycomb on the surface is not the Maycomb underneath. The moment at Aunt Alexandria’s Missionary Circle when Scout sees the town’s hypocrisy for what it is, just as Atticus receives word that Tom Robinson has been shot. Scout’s ham costume. The cruelty of Bob Ewell and the moment where Boo Radley saves the children. The meeting of Scout and Boo. And a dozen other glorious moments in between. Line after line. Word after word. 

One of my favorite passages is one that I can’t read without weeping. I have always loved asking students if the last part is true. I like to think that Scout grew up and realized that it wasn’t.

 “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

No comments: