Friday, March 14, 2014

On Rereading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Rediscovering a Reading Community

"We read to know we are not alone." C.S. Lewis

To Kill a Mockingbird…I’ve probably taught it fifteen times, at West Mid High, Central Mid High, and North. I loved reading it, and would never cheat and teach without rereading. I loved Scout; I wanted to be Scout. When asked, I will always say this is my favorite book. 

I own two (count ‘em, two) autographed copies. One is signed in the most beautiful script, flowing ‘Harper Lee.’ 35th anniversary edition, with Lee’s forward, 
and the 50th anniversary edition, with a beautiful personalized inscription signed by Mary Badham, the actress who captivated us all as Scout. Two treasures. I would bring the copy signed by Lee to school, and let students look.

I’ve often tried to work it out, and remember the first time I read this book…the first time I read, “Macomb was an old town…a tired old town.” I know it was first published in 1960 – the year I was a freshman in high school. My mom, wise but uneducated in the traditional sense, had floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were her college degree. I’m sure I would have met Scout and Dill and Jem there. But I cannot remember.

I DO remember Mom telling me Dill was actually Truman Capote, the famous eccentric author. I remember telling friends that when we would discuss the book, but everyone rolled their eyes at me…if they even knew who Capote was. In my house we did.

But when did I first read it? The film was rushed out very soon after the book. I’ve heard Rock Hudson was slated to play Atticus! ((Shudder)) The book, the film, like Scout’s being able to read…it’s always been a part of who I am…

Rereading it over the last few days, and posting pictures of favorite passages to Facebook has reminded me of what it means to be a member of a community of readers. Many of my students in my class, Reading for Pleasure, came into class believing reading was lonely, solitary behavior of social losers and misfits. They didn’t know we readers love to talk about our books…what we’re reading, what you’re reading. What we want to read next. Our favorite books…our amazing books. Our top ten, ever changing and expanding, like the universe.

My non-readers saw quickly that reading is participating in the world’s biggest book club. We discover soul mates when we talk about books. We instantly bond with someone who loves the same books we do.

I bought myself a brand new paperback, but I kept the old 'teacher copy' for old time's sake. Lots of memories in those yellowed pages. So, I reread, I posted. Then I watched as my own reading community responded to the posts. I participated in multi-generational book clubs…teachers, former students, friends. We all have memories of this book and the power it holds in our lives.

Friends found funny memes and shared...the cat who's so frustrated because there are no birds killed, the famous "Tequila Mockingbird" bar. I joked about the one student who thought this was going to be a hunting manual. We all had a great time.

Shanna remembered years ago, when she read TKAM in my class, she literally could not let go of the book. When it was time to return the school’s books to the book room, she held the book (remember the old blue and yellow paperback cover) to her chest and told me she could not give it back. We agreed to ‘disappear’ the book, and declared it missing. She still has that copy. She is expecting her first child and is sad she and her husband won’t be naming her daughter, ‘Scout’.  Rachael saw me several years ago at her class’s 10th reunion. She told me she also snitched a copy, and when she returned home, tagged me on the picture of the book! What power this book holds over us.

Matt told me these posts had inspired him to reread the book, and explained that his dad gave him his first copy, and he intends to share the book with his newborn daughter…when she’s older!

Teacher friends have entered the conversations…talking about their favorite moments to teach.  What passages make them laugh and cry. The connections they find and share with their students.

Bianca and Malinda, close friends in high school. Classmates, connected on one post and declared we must have a book club. I remember both ‘girls’ falling in love with the book. Even separated by years and geography, they remembered.

I think I value the insights of my teacher-friends the most…so much we can learn from each other. Tim and I talked about how much we love Mrs. Dubose and Dolphus Raymond. Sabrina and I remembered the funny scenes that led us to tears. Lyn made amazing connections with other classic novels.

This book means something to us all…individually and together. We connect, we remember. We are taken back in time to the moment we met Scout and Dill and Jem. And Atticus…the dad we all wished we’d had. The teacher, the mentor.

The book helps us see our world anew. I recall a trip to a Pueblo in New Mexico. Driving through some pretty grim areas, I saw a small house with rose bushes. Carefully tended, lovingly coaxed from the hard soil. I immediately thought of Mayella Ewell’s geraniums. We must have beauty in our lives; we deserve it.

I read this book, knowing there are three lines that will make me cry. I wait for them; I let them wash over me and touch me.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand…Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her…she was the bravest person I ever knew.” With this, Jem and Scout, through a rambling first half of the book, have learned all the lessons they’ll need to sustain them through the trial of Tom Robinson and beyond. They don’t know they’ve been learning and storing these lessons, but they have.

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.’” Everyone in the courtroom knew, from the beginning, how this trial would end…everyone but Scout and Dill and Jem. But Atticus never gave up. I remember how angry my students were, perfect Jems, at the verdict. They saw the wrongness. They raged against the injustice, just as Jem did.

“Hey, Boo.” That perfect moment when Scout recognizes her rescuer…her protector. She KNOWS. She connects. She grows in that moment, and sees the rightness of Heck Tate’s decision to say Ewell fell on his knife…it would be like shooting a mockingbird.

And there's Atticus’s humble, “Thank you, Arthur, for my children.”

I continue to cry from that moment until the end…when Scout takes Arthur’s arm as they stroll back to his house, when she stands on his porch and sees the last few years play out from his point of view. That magic moment when ‘the children’ become ‘his children.’ The return home…to their steadfast father who would be there in the morning.

I am so grateful that I was able to introduce this book to fifteen-years-or-so of students in my English 2 classes. I’m grateful many remember it fondly. I’m grateful I have friends who care about it as deeply as I and are willing to discuss it in public.

I’m grateful that two dear friends gave me gifts of precious autographs. I’m grateful, always, for Scout’s voice: wise, clueless. Insightful, impatient. Observant and so smart.

I think there’s only one kind of folks. Folks.”

I am so grateful that lots of folks I love, love this book. But I wish I could recall that first time I read ironic that I can't.

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