To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
I don't remember when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. Or even if I read it at all. Did I read it in school, and was it therefore in my mind consigned to the Pit as worthless? (I am an avid reader and re-reader, but no thanks to school, which utterly failed to reveal to me the good qualities of any book we were forced to read.) Did I read it after meeting Porter and learning that this is his all-time favorite book? Or did I only watch the movie? If I did read it, I know I was not impressed, because books that I find worthwhile I will read over and over again, soaking them into my very being—and I know I didn't read To Kill a Mockingbird twice.
I'm really curious: Did I make my judgement on the movie alone? Movies rarely impress me the way books can. Or was I just not psychologically ready to appreciate Harper Lee's masterpiece? The latter is possible. If I read it under Porter's influence, I would still have been very close to my school years and thus predisposed to being negative about "important" literature. More to the point, I was at that time in my life extremely prejudiced against the South, and would have had little appreciation and less sympathy for the tribulations of small-own Alabama and its people. I also had much less appreciation for good writing then than I do now.
Whatever the case, I was inspired by two recent events to give To Kill a Mockingbird another try. First, we attended a local theater presentation of the story, which was excellently done and served to reveal that I'd clearly gotten nothing out of my first experience, be it book or movie. Second, Heather was given some lavender bath salts that she had passed on to me, and I wanted to try them out. I love to read in the bath, but my current reading was on my Kindle, and the combination of electronics and bath water sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. So I pulled To Kill a Mockingbird off the bookshelf and dove into new waters—both physical and metaphorical.
It took me nearly half a century to discover it, but Porter was absolutely right: this is an astonishingly wonderful book. I knew in the first two pages that if I had ever read it before, I certainly hadn't read it. What wonderful writing! What a beautiful and important story! If I had to boil my definition of a good book down to one sentence, it would be this: A good book inspires me to be a better person. The character of Atticus Finch alone can provide a lifetime of inspiration.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that it is easy for an author to create evil characters, because he need look no further than his own heart for inspiration, but to be able to create a credible portrait of good is a rare gift. Lewis was, in that instance, praising the Scottish author George MacDonald, but I'm certain he would have said the same about Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is as inspiring a noble character as could be wished. At the same time, there is not a whit of sentimentality anywhere in the book. There is real life, hard times, hard-core racism, poverty, incest, drug addiction, mental illness ... heroism, understanding, self-sacrifice, duty, love ... above all there is grace ... all in a package that I would not hesitate to recommend to our 11-year-old grandson.
The movie version with Gregory Peck is well-known, but I wouldn't go there. Nothing less than the book could possibly do justice to the story.
For certain if I read To Kill a Mockingbird in the past it was well before homeschooling was ever on my radar. Else how could I possibly have forgotten these passages? Minor though they certainly are in the course of the story, they are nonetheless brilliant.
Scout's first day of school:
Then [the teacher] went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous square capitals, turned to the class and asked, "Does anybody know what these are?"
Everybody did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.
I suppose she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.
"Teach me?" I said in surprise. "He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything." I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. "Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the livingroom and reads."
"If he didn't teach you, who did?" Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. "Somebody did. You weren't born reading The Mobile Register."
"Jem says I was. He read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead of a Finch. Jem says my name's really Jean Louise Bullfinch, that I got swapped when I was born and I'm really a—"
Miss Caroline apparently thought I was lying. "Let's not let our imaginations run away with us, dear," she said. "Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage—"
"Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now."
I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow, anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything, at least, what one didn't know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn't help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half Decimal half Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
From Atticus' speech to the jury:
"Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority."
Finally, though it has nothing to do with education, this one was just what I needed after attending a shower given to Heather and Nathaniel by some very nice and generous ladies at their church. When I can, I try to avoid gatherings that openly practice discrimination, and thus wasn't thrilled that this event had blatantly excluded men (except for the guest of honor). But as its purpose was to bless my daughter and grandson, I mustered the courage to attend, despite agreeing 100% with Scout:
Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere....