Thank you, Harper Lee

I’ve been wanting to write something about this for a while now, mostly so I’d have it to remember and make me smile later, but suddenly it feels appropriate right now.

I don’t want to give personal details here, so I’m just going to say that a student you’d never expect, surprised me several weeks ago. He’s never been a reader, but he informed me that we were starting a (very small) book club. He and his friend would be coming to my classroom twice a week during lunch, and we’d be listening to the audiobook version of To Kill A Mockingbird. My job was to provide the audiobook and press the play button.

You can’t say no to that!

to kill a mockingbird
Photo Credit: Pickersgill Reef via Compfight cc

I have no idea where he got the idea to read TKAM. He heard about it somewhere though, and according to plan, he’s dragged his friend along twice a week to eat lunch in my room and listen to the book. They sit mostly in silence, occasionally asking me to hit the pause button so we can discuss part of the story.

I can’t emphasize enough–this wasn’t my idea! I didn’t do this. I’ve made a lot of efforts to encourage my kids to fall in love with reading, but I never suggested this book, and I never suggested lunchtime book club. In fact, I’m probably the least engaged member of the club. While they’re listening to the book, I’m usually working on other stuff and only kinda-sorta paying attention. When they want to stop and discuss, I’m leaning heavily on my memory of reading the book way back in high school, and seeing the movie several years ago. Zero effort is going into teaching this novel.

I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me. Book club completely warms my teacher heart. Watching two kids giving up their free time to voluntarily enjoy a classic novel–it’s the dream. And not just any two kids, but kids that I originally met as total non-readers.

We do all kinds of language activities in my ELD classes of course, but my favorite, and the kids’ favorite, is when we read a novel together. Yes, I make them do academic work to go with it. But sometimes I wish we could just sit around, reading and discussing novels, every single day. Drop the structure and accountability and grading and everything else. Just savor good books and discussion. The kids wouldn’t complain!

Harper Lee passed away yesterday. And I’m remembering that quote somebody said on Twitter during the celebrity death streak last month–“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them; we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” The quote struck a chord with me, but as I’m thinking of it now in relation to Lee and other writers, I want to add to it–artists help us know ourselves, and help us know outside of ourselves.

When our book club started chapter one of To Kill A Mockingbird, the kids were asking questions like, “Does this take place before or after 9/11?” (If I’d been actually teaching the novel in class, I would have provided some background before jumping into the book. But since this was so informal and student-led, I hadn’t done that.) I paused the book and we all took a step back to discuss the setting and some historical context.

The conversation felt a little bit like this:

“We’re in the 1930s… Great Depression… ”

“So, slavery?”

“After that.”

“Martin Luther King?”

“Before that–well, actually, he would have been a little kid at this point.”

Through conversation, but mostly through Harper Lee’s words, the kids and I are being transported back to rural Alabama in the 30s. For the students, this is their first journey, and they’re learning the language and flavors and background of a new-to-them time and place in our country’s history. For me, it’s a comfortable return to a place I’ve visited before–but only via literature. I’d read plenty of historical fiction and had lots of relevant background knowledge the first time I read Mockingbird in sophomore English class, but the novel still shines brighter in my memory than so many others I’ve read. Lee’s stories, characters, and words never really leave you.

Book club hasn’t gotten into much of the heavy stuff yet. We’re still romping around, bugging Boo Radley. The kids are charmed by the small town, entertained by Dill (who can read!), unimpressed with Scout’s experiences with public education, and intrigued by the elusive Radley. They’ve been shocked by some of the racial language, casually used, that they know is unacceptable today. I have no doubt that the discussion will be rich as they meet Tom Robinson and get into the court battle. Their sense of justice, equity, and right/wrong is strong, and they’re going to have thoughts and feelings about this one! I can’t wait.

They’re learning about the world beyond their own experience. And they’re also learning about who they are, and who they want to be. Because who can read about Atticus Finch, without internalizing some desire to be that person?

For right now, I’m happy to let them stick with the Mockingbird version of Atticus. It’s developmentally appropriate. They need to believe in a world where good guys stand up against injustice, fight racism head on, and win their battles. They need to learn and believe the lessons Mockingbird Atticus has to teach–lessons about what courage really is, about listening to your conscience, about understanding other people. Correction: we all need Mockingbird Atticus.

And someday, when they’re older, I hope my students return to Maycomb and get to know Go Set A Watchman’s Atticus. That story and that Atticus are harder to swallow, but we need to grapple with them. One day my students will have to understand that racism doesn’t just belong to the bad guys. It’s embedded into the very structure of our society, and its insidious traces can be seen even in people we love and respect. They’ll learn that good guys and bad guys rarely appear outside of the comic books–most of us are just humans, products of our environment, doing the best we can with the knowledge and experience we have. Just like Jean Louise and her Watchman Atticus, my kids will see their own heroes slip off pedestals, and their own ideals fail them. Hopefully Watchman Atticus will help them learn that a person’s heroism doesn’t make them immune to wrongdoing, but their shortcomings also don’t cancel out the good they offer the world. Watchman Atticus can help them learn to live with some cognitive dissonance, and think critically with their heads and their hearts.

Mockingbird Atticus will help my kids want to change the world, and Watchman Atticus will give them the smarts to do it.

Thank you, Harper Lee.

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