If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, stop reading this, drop everything, read it, and come back.
Done? Great. Because ahead are mild spoilers. I’ll try to avoid big things. It’s just so hard to discuss this book without spoilers.
This book was a standard read for 9th grade honors English at my high school, and so naturally I read it in middle school, summer of 6th or 7th grade, I’ve forgotten now which. In a way, I’m glad I did this. The main character is quite young when the events of the book take place, and in a way reading it closer to her age gave me a very interesting perspective. Going back and reading it in English class when older and wiser, fully in the formal operational stage of development, it was a completely different experience. I understood and realized things that went right over my head the first time through – something that happens every time a book is reread, because we are always looking at it with new eyes.
Lee deals with some heavy topics through the eyes of someone recalling childhood, innocence, not understanding fully everything around her. The recluse down the street everyone’s afraid of? Definitely suffering some sort of social/emotional disorder, possibly disabled in some way, and in a way he’s the hero of the whole story. The center of the whole novel? A trumped up rape trial heavily colored by good old-fashioned southern racial bigotry. Famously, the main character – a tiny little girl – saves her father and the defendant from a lynching mob in the middle of the night without realizing because she recognizes one of the mob, calls him out, asks about his son, who is a classmate of hers at school. The man is suddenly ashamed of what he is doing and calls off the whole mob, telling everyone to go home.
Perhaps my favorite scenes, however, have very little to do with the big-picture issues of race. They’re social moments and school moments. Scout, the main character, sits in on a missionary meeting where a bunch of white women meet with a missionary and talk about poor people in other parts of the world when their own community is so obviously suffering and in need of help. Scout is uncomfortable, but she isn’t judging these women, simply observing. This is the beauty of her voice, the voice of a child. She never judges others because she doesn’t have the context to do so meaningfully, so she simply tells what is happening and it’s up to the reader to connect the dots.
The best bits, though, are the school. You get issues of class (the family that always has lice, the family that doesn’t accept handouts because of pride), and the wonderful jab at the absurdity of educational systems developed without understanding of the needs of the schools they’re to be implemented in. As someone working on my Masters in Teaching, this is especially great to think back on, because it just illustrates this problem so well. This teacher comes in, fresh, inexperienced, but trained in all the latest theories. And when she tries to apply these theories to her first classroom, she finds it impossible because it doesn’t address the needs of her students. And the best part is, the students can see this so clearly, but the teacher is oblivious.
This book is basically the epitome of “out of the mouths of babes,” with incredible range of profundity in an open voice. Every time I open it is a new experience, a new treasure. Especially given how timely the racial and educational considerations are (class issues as well, honestly), I think it’s time for those of you who haven’t read it in a while to give it a reread, and a good, long think.