Posts Tagged ‘great books’

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She Said, “Hey, Boo.”

October 28, 2012

Earlier this week I watched an episode of the PBS series American Masters entitled “Hey, Boo.” It told the story of Harper Lee, her writing of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and the making of the subsequent movie version. This book, one which I believe lays as great a claim as any to be the Great American Novel, is one with which I am intimately familiar having taught it in my eighth grade English classes for many, many years. As I watched her story unfold and listened to lines of the book¬†read by a host of authors who had been influenced by this masterpiece, waves of emotion washed over me, and I realized that teaching this book may well have been the finest hour of my teaching career.

Countless students told me that this was the first book that had ever really meant anything to them (and for a few the first they had actually read). There are those students who now as adults have told me it is still the best book they’ve ever read. There can be no greater testament to the power of a work of literature than when it affects its readers permanently. The plaudits of authors such as James Patterson, Wally Lamb, James McBride, Richard Russo, and Anna Quindlen as well as the likes of Roseann Cash, Tom Brokaw, and Oprah merely affirmed what I already intuitively knew. This is a great book.

Some might take issue with the relevance of a story set in a small town in the deep South in the 1930’s, but I believe otherwise. The relevance lives in the heart of the story and its characters and the universality of the experiences and themes. After all, what kid growing up in an American town didn’t have that one spooky house in the neighborhood inhabited by someone who struck fear in small hearts? What kid didn’t spend at least some time living in a world dominated by imagination? We all needed to discover that there are some folks (maybe even you) who are simply different from everyone else. We all felt the tremendous impact of finding out that some people are not at all what we thought they were. Most importantly, every one of us as kids must go through the struggle of trying to figure out this odd adult world with all its injustices into which we must one day grow.

To Kill a Mockingbird, after years of revisions and additions to the original manuscript, finally got¬†published in 1960. I was twelve years old at that time and knew little of the turmoil of the civil rights struggle in our country. Reading this novel helped put the pieces of this complicated puzzle together for me as it did for many others. It did so quite effectively, not by pontificating, but rather through the magic of the author’s wonderful story-telling ability and the marvelously enchanting voice of the narrator, Scout. What starts out as a young girl telling how her older brother broke his arm ends up being a complex tale of intertwined lives and social upheaval.

I have such vivid memories of my classes during the reading and discussion of Mockingbird during those years. One time I re-enacted the scene of Tom Robinson getting shot seventeen times as he tried to “escape” in an attempt to impress upon my students what was really going on here. My room was attached to the next one, my friend’s math class, connected by a small hallway that had old-fashioned doors with window panes in the top half. My door was located in the center of the front of the room between the two blackboards. This door became the wire fence against which I absorbed, with great dramatic spasms, each of the seventeen shots which the class counted aloud. So involved was I in the heat of the moment that it took more than a few “shots” for me to notice that the entire math class in the other room had swiveled around to witness this travesty of justice as it came to its tragic end.

As the novel came to its conclusion, something I always hated to have happen, I often would read some of the singularly beautiful and moving passages in the last chapter aloud. This was (and still is) one of my favorites:

“We came to the street light on the corner, and I wondered how many times Dill had stood there hugging the fat pole, watching, waiting, hoping. I wondered how many times Jem and I had made this journey, but I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.

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.”

It always took a supreme effort to will myself not to be overwhelmed by the emotion that welled up inside me as I read. The classes would sit there as if mesmerized. I believe they too did not want the story to come to an end.

Later we would watch Gregory Peck’s brilliant portrayal of Atticus in the movie. Together we would laugh at Scout rolling in the tire, hold our breaths when Jem and Dill appeared to be in harm’s way in the Radley yard, and marvel over how transparent Mayella’s frenzied testimony and denial seemed. One year I had a student who was the spitting image of the young actress who played Scout (something she must have tired of hearing me say). But each year, as good as the movie version is, the classes would concur that the book was even better.

The discontinuation of the teaching of this novel is one of my greatest regrets as a teacher. This became necessary for several reasons. Our eighth grade English curriculum, already bursting at the seams, had Romeo and Juliet added to it, moved down from sophomore year. The increased emphasis on standardized testing further swelled the load with the need for more and more specialized preparation. Another unfortunate element emerged when less and less of the students kept up with the reading at home for various reasons. The de-emphasis and then ultimate phasing out of Mockingbird resulted. I cringe at the thought of all the bright young minds that followed not getting the opportunity to be enriched by Harper Lee’s gift. I hope that they came to read it by some other means.

Yesterday as I prepared for the arrival of the impending Hurricane Sandy, I heard the melodious song of a mockingbird perched on the highest branch of a tree in my neighbor’s yard. It made me think anew of the documentary and all my memories of teaching this novel. I thought of Atticus’s words to Jem about not killing a mockingbird. I thought of all of the trials and tribulations involved in learning this and all the other life lessons that Jem and Scout encountered. I thought about the elation of having shared with so many this story of facing adversity and eventual redemption through courage and integrity.

But above all else, this is a story of discovery — discovery about oneself, about those around you, about the world. Perhaps this is best captured in Scout’s simple utterance when she first saw her unknown benefactor. She simply said, “Hey, Boo.” Anna Quindlen called these “two of the best words put into any book by any writer,” and I agree with her. Those who have not yet read the book should do so, and you will discover why. I especially hope young readers continue to make their own discoveries through the eyes of Scout in this wonderful and eternally fulfilling novel. If this happens, Mockingbird will live on, and the world will better for it.

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