To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Lesson: You can learn something about life from everyone…even mean, old, racist people.
To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I “taught” in a public school. I had never read it. It was my second week student teaching, my cooperating teacher was working on her administrative degree, so she just smiled and left me alone with a dozen black teenagers to talk about how a black man was falsely accused of raping a white woman, and (spoiler) was eventually killed by the police.
Except I didn’t actually know that was what we’d be talking about, because I had never read the book, because when I was in high school I didn’t like teachers telling me what to read and learn. This is when I synthesized what I learned playing Texas Hold ’em (bluffing) and “invented” a teaching strategy that I still employ today: “So…what did you think of chapter one? Don’t be shy, no wrong answers.”
Of course nobody else had read the book either, so I started reading out loud to them. But the first half of TKAM is long and nobody cares about Scout running around in cabbage patches. So we watched the movie, and I learned about the Scottsboro Boys and showed a documentary on them, all the while buying time to read the book at home and plan something useful to do.
I was still student teaching, so I didn’t know much about conventional school, much less alternative education, so I approached the book pretty traditionally – that is, as Billy Collins would say, we tied it to a chair and beat it with a hose until we found out what the thing was up to. I tried to make it fun, but I can’t remember if students found my attempts successful. I think they liked me, and I liked them, but we had different opinions on TKAM – I liked it, and they thought it was too long and slow.
I especially loved the character Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and I think I tried to explain why to the class, but I honestly can’t remember. It was a long time ago, and I was pretty sleep deprived at the time. Dubose was the racist old lady who disapproved of Atticus Finch (the narrator Scout’s father) defending a black man for allegedly raping a white woman. Dubose had an old Confederate pistol and a bad morphine addiction. Scout vandalizes Dubose’s property, so Atticus makes Scout go read to Dubose everyday, as punishment. Unbeknownst to Scout, Dubose is using that time as a distraction to little-by-little come off of the morphine, even though she knows she has a terminal illness and will be dead soon. Dubose says she wants to die beholden to nobody and nothing, so she puts herself through hell for her beliefs, and then dies.
It’s as easy to hate Dubose as it is to love Atticus. But loving Atticus means nothing. It’s like having Superman as your favorite superhero – the guy who has every amazing power imaginable, never tells a lie, has perfect hair, is always a gentleman, etc.? Really? When I was a freshman in college there was some dude who would walk around with a “I Hate Nazis” patch sewn on his backpack. Really sticking your neck out on that one, bubba.
Dubose is deeply flawed. She’s racist and besides that, generally mean. Scout is even grossed out by how she looks. But if you want to limit your exposure to only people who are as perfect as Atticus and Superman, then you’re going to be about as rough-and-tumble in your views as the “I Hate Nazis” guy. You’re going to end up understanding people the same way you understand anatomy by studying stick figures. Dubose kicked morphine for no other reason than her duty to herself. That’s a powerful lesson from a mean old racist.
*EDIT: It was Jem who destroyed Mrs. Dubose’s plants and had to read to her as punishment. Scout tagged along. Told you I didn’t read the book 😉