Back in the day, we moved from junior high to high school our sophomore year. I had Mrs. McMullen for Language Arts. After she taught us she went on to become an administrator, but while we were hers, she introduced us to philosophy and allowed us to teach ourselves Shakespeare. She challenged us, made us think, and we adored her. She did something else, that in retrospect was rather remarkable, she had us study Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
So??? Doesn’t everyone read To Kill A Mockingbird in high school? After all, it is a Pulitzer prize winning Great American Novel and part of the American literary cannon. What’s so remarkable about that?
For one thing, the book was not a classic when we read it. It was a first work, written by an unknown author, and published just four years earlier in 1960.
For another thing, it was a book that dealt with dysfunctional families, prejudice, race, rape and incest. We didn’t talk about those things in my quiet, conservative East Texas town. Oh, we studied “classical” literature, which, if anyone paid much attention, addressed the same issues. But, even if the grownups noticed, it was presumed that Classical Literature was sufficiently disconnected from reality to insure that it would neither give us “ideas” nor damage our psyches.The theory seemed to be that we could be exposed to themes of human foibles the purpose of cultural awareness without absorbing any carnal knowledge for practical application.
There was one other thing that made Mrs. Mc’s choice rather remarkable. I was a sophomore in high school in 1964-65. Vietnam was escalating into a full scale war. The previous November President Kennedy was assassinated 50 miles away in Dallas. In the sultry summer heat of July of 1964 the Civil Rights Act became law. When we started high school in August, our town implemented “freedom of choice.” For the first time, “colored” students could opt to attend the “black” high school or one of the two “white” high schools.Twelve black students crossed the line and joined our class of about 300. Most of us were too were busy worrying about homework, hairdos, football, and homecoming to realize that the predictable, sheltered Happy Days were coming to an end and the Age of Aquarius was dawning.
Amazingly, in the face of all that, our teacher decided to introduce us to Atticus Finch,Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and Arthur “Boo” Radley. Through the eyes of Scout, she took us into the world of 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama so carefully and thoughtfully that we were able to take the advice of Atticus who said “you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.” Because of Mrs. Mc, we walked around in those shoes for a while before we realized that they were our very own shoes after all. I really never aware of what a daring thing she had done until this month.
So why, what, after all these years, has caused Mrs. McMullen and To Kill A Mockingbird to weigh so heavy on my mind? Because this month I went to a very special book club meeting. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, my rather remarkable high school class has re-established itself as an on-line community. And this month, with a group gathered in a library in Dallas and a few of us joining by webcam, Mrs. Mc lead us in a class discussion revisitingTo Kill A Mockingbird.
Forty-five years can change one’s perspective, but some truths don’t change. A few of us were working on our homework up until class began. Some were too shy to talk and Mrs. Mc had to draw the out. Most of us found things that we missed the first time. All of us thought a little more broadly and a little more deeply because, once again, we studied together. Literature and learning is a silken cord that has bound us together in spite of different lifestyles, and values and experiences, over the years. And weeks later, I’m still wondering:
Why was killing a mockingbird the only thing Scout ever heard Atticus classify as a sin? Who did Harper Lee intend for us to recognize as a mockingbird? Was Tom Robinson? Or was it Boo? What about Mayella? Or were the children, Jem, Scout and Dill the mockingbirds? Is it noble or tragic that the mockingbird sings its heart out, but always sings someone else's song?
Scout knew that it was dangerous when Atticus asked “Do you really think so?”
Mrs. McMullen pushed us to ask that same question forty-five years ago because she believed we could think on our own. She was willing to rock our boat and still trust us to set our own course. It might have been dangerous for us, and it was very likely dangerous for her. But it was one of the greatest compliments she could have given us and one of the greatest gifts as well.
I hope we are living up to her expectations.
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.