Those of us who grew up in the United States and attended public schools probably remember reading Harper Lee's novel about racial justice and human dignity "To Kill a Mockingbird" sometime during our middle or high school years. I read it in middle school; most of my classmates were white and a few were African Americans. Now, as a high school English teacher, I am reading this story with students whose faces reflect continents across the globe. This experience shows me how reading beautiful books can help us recognize universal truths that transcend time and place and culture.
The powerful and controversial novel, published in 1960, takes place in Alabama during the Great Depression and is told from the point of view of a little girl, Jean Louise Finch, who goes by the nickname Scout. The heart of the plot is her father defending a black man falsely accused of rape. Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson even though he knows the all-white jury will convict him of a crime he did not commit, a crime, in fact, we discover never took place.
Most of my students are either recent immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. My students' home countries have ranged from Guatemala to Ghana.They do not necessarily know the history of the United States in great detail; Alabama to them signifies the home of a well-known college football team and nothing more. Often in my classes I am the only person with fair skin.
And so I have the job of explaining to them a bit about the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement. And as we talk, they understand that they too, would have been subject to cruel racial segregation laws, drinking from "colored" water fountains or banished from restaurants and hotels and universities merely because their skin is a few shades darker than their teacher's.
This world of racial prejudice appears to be largely unknown to my students; their school friendships span culture and race and the things that seem to matter the most to so many characters is Lee's novel. And yet, her novel speaks powerfully to them because its message of tolerance to and the dignity of all people resonates. More than one student asked me today if any of the characters in the book were real people.
Today we finished the first half of the book, which hints at the ugly consequences of the criminal trial to come, but which largely introduces us to Scout's small world of family and neighborhood.
For homework, I had asked my students to reflect on what they thought of Scout's reclusive neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley at first, when their understanding of him came only from nasty rumors recounted by Scout, who heard them from adults in the neighborhood.
And then I asked them: What do they think about Boo now that they have learned about his kind gestures, including leaving the children small gifts in a knothole of a tree on his property? They wrote that their views had changed once they got to "know" the man and not just judged him based on rumors and gossip.
"The heart of this book will be about the trial," I told the children. "So why does Harper Lee spend so much time on this story about Boo Radley?" I wrote on the whiteboard: "What do you think the writer's message is?"
To a child, they got it.
"Don't judge a book by its cover."
"Don't believe the worst about someone"
"Don't prejudge someone."
And I told them: we all do that, don't we? We make decisions about people based on what we hear about them, what they look like or from our very first impressions of them.
And then I wrote this quote from the book on the board and asked them to think about it for a while.
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."