Sunday, February 21, 2016

In Memoriam: Harper Lee

In 1966, desperate to find a book to read, I snuck into my brother’s room when no one was home and browsed through the books in his closet. I don’t know what made me choose To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do remember that once I began, I couldn’t put it down. I was twelve years old.

Two years later, the movie starring Gregory Peck (and the inimitable Robert Duvall as Boo Radley) aired on television, and all the characters I had fallen in love with came to life in black and white. That same year, men who had become my heroes in the Civil Rights Movement mostly because of my reading of the novel—Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.—lost their lives to the socio-political war that was devastating the country at that time.

To say this novel shaped my life is an understatement. I lost my father at a young age and was raised by a non-nurturing mother. Like so many others who’ve read this book, I both envied and longed for the type of strong, loving relationship Scout shares with Atticus. And I yearned for the wisdom of Atticus in my life.

When Atticus looked down at me I saw the expression on his face that always made me expect something. “Do you know what a compromise is?” he asked.

And I learned volumes about parenting from his example:

I had spent most of the day climbing up and down, running errands for [Jem], providing him with literature, nourishment and water, and was carrying him blankets for the night when Atticus said if I paid no attention to him, Jem would come down. Atticus was right.

This was such an important book in my life that when my own daughter turned twelve, I bought her a copy—and I ended up re-reading the novel from start to finish, falling in love with Atticus even more, now that I was a parent myself.

By the time my daughter was a teenager, I had become a teacher. In my second year of teaching high school, I was assigned freshman English. That year we read To Kill a Mockingbird together, and for twenty-five out of the twenty-seven years of my teaching career, I have read it again—mostly aloud, affecting a Southern accent, and always, always fighting back tears in certain sections:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

“Hey, Boo.”

“Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Before he went inside the house, [Atticus] stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.
(Gregory Peck’s line in the screenplay version is, “Thank you, Arthur. Thank you for my children,” as he extends his hand to shake Boo’s. To my mind, it is one of the simplest yet most beautifully moving scenes in the film.)

He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

In my early years of teaching, I was sometimes criticized for readingewwww aloud to my students. (‘They’re in high school now. They need to learn to read and comprehend on their own.’) To my way of thinking, these folks had it all wrong. What better way to learn to comprehend the dynamics of literature than to hear the words come alive? Hearing someone who is familiar with the text stream through the long sections of dialogue in the courtroom scene has to be better than trying to parse through Tom Robinson’s style of speech (“No suh, I’s scared I’d be in court….”) while keeping track of who was speaking and what significance there was in the sometimes calm, sometimes accusatory exchange of questions and answers.

Because I read the novel along with my students, I’ve read it in excess of a hundred times. Each spring I read it with a new batch of kids, and each time I learn something new. It took me years to figure out why Harper Lee included the chapter on Mrs. Dubose—because as a writer, I know that every chapter has a purpose, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how Mrs. Dubose supported the theme of the novel. Until I realized what she stood for. And then the epiphany came like a bolt of lightning.

“You know, she was a great lady.”

Yes, Atticus, just as the pre-Civil War South was, and it, too, suffered from a disease that ravaged it.

Over the years, as I’ve taught Mockingbird, I’ve thought fondly of Harper Lee. She would have been in her sixties when I first began teaching the novel. After I’d been teaching it for several years, I wrote her a long letter, never expecting any response, just wanting her to know how meaningful the book had been to me as a child and as an adult. She never answered, but this was her way, and everyone knew it. As the years went by, I would occasionally seek out her name on the internet to see how she was faring. Every year I’ve been able to tell my students as we finish the novel, “So Harper Lee is still alive…” (because 1960, the year the book came out, seems like hundreds of years ago to them). As it turns out, we are currently reading the book in my class. Tomorrow in each class period, I will tell them that Harper Lee has died, and we will talk about the legacy she has left behind.

Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel helped solidify the Civil Rights Movement in America. Since its publication, it has never been out of print. Countless generations of readers, old and young, have found friends and role models in Jem, Scout, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Tom Robinson and the rest of the characters. The novel will continue to influence readers for generations to come.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee. Thank you for your life, thank you for your work, thank you for your heart. Your words will be with us forever.


  1. Beautiful tribute and analysis. Thank you for providing a safe environment for learning to the generations you taught. LN

  2. Thank you. When I began my teaching career, I scoffed at the idea that teaching is a "noble profession." It only took a few years to realize that, yes, I would be making more money in another line of work, but in another line of work, I would never experience the joy of watching a kid get excited about reading a book she loves, or another one come back to say, 'You helped prepare me for writing essays in college--thank you,' or another one say, 'You made learning fun--and I've never liked English before.' That's the good stuff, so I'll take the disrespect and the low salary. The kids make the job an amazing endeavor.