The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was twelve years old. I walked into my dad’s study and slid the well-worn paperback with cracks in the spine off the shelf. My dad talked about the book often; his father, my grandfather, had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama and was friends with Harper Lee. She based the story on her hometown, and in that way I felt a sort of familial kinship to the text.
I felt unsure as I started the book, and then was quickly drawn in. The story, narrated by young Scout Finch, recounts her childhood experiences with her brother Jem in fictional Maycomb, Alabama. I was devastated when her father, Atticus, unsuccessfully defended Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of rape. My heart soared when Jem and Scout’s lives were saved by their reclusive, outcast neighbor Boo Radley. After I finished it I solemnly placed the book back on the shelf. I mentally added it to my running list of favorite books.
Teaching To Kill a Mockinbird
Ten years later I was twenty-two, and starting my first year of teaching at a Christian school in the Chicago suburbs. I taught freshman English, and started off my first two years teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. I was so excited to share this book that I loved. Over those two years I found that most of our conversation circled around Atticus. His character demanded attention. My students were particularly fascinated with the idea of Atticus as a Christ figure.
One morning in November as the wind howled and the sky felt perpetually gray we discussed this concept. At first the students were confused.
“How is Atticus a Christ figure if he doesn’t die?”
“What does Atticus sacrifice to defend Tom?”
“Why didn’t more people help Tom?”
But slowly they started to realize just how profound it was when Atticus said,
“. . . before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself.”
Like Jesus Christ, Atticus did what was courageous in a world that didn’t understand him or his choices.
Lee’s writing of him was so brilliant that at times I felt like I could reach out and touch him. My students in Chicagoland felt that, and they fell in love with Atticus, too. My students helped me see that through their curiosity why Atticus made the choices he did. Their questions prodded me to think further about the character of Atticus.
Moving to Alaska
Over the course of those two years teaching in Chicago I fell in love and got engaged. Through a whirlwind of events and my now-husband’s commitment to Army service after college I found myself living in interior Alaska after our wedding. It was there that I had the privilege of teaching this story again, but to a much different student population.
In August of another school year I started off freshman English with To Kill a Mockingbird, just as I had two years before. My move to Alaska left me feeling a bit shaken. I was struck with a feeling of isolation in a culture where I struggled to belong. I found comfort in returning to a text that reminded me of family and home, and I was excited to teach the book again and have similar discussions.
These students were very different than the first group I taught. I loved them, just as I loved my students back in the Chicago suburbs but I worried that they would find me unrelatable or stuck up because of my lack of Alaskan experiences like hunting, fishing, and hiking. I also wasn’t sure how they would take the book. Alabama wasn’t exactly close to Chicago, but it felt so much farther from Alaska that I feared it would be inaccessible. I needn’t have worried about them, though.
As fall continued and temperatures plummeted and we read the book I returned again to the trial scene, determined to do it justice and help them see the profundity of the character of Atticus. I longed for them to connect with Atticus the way my old students had.
During our discussion I asked questions about the trial scene, like in Chicago we had a robust conversation. But not about Atticus. My Alaskan students kept coming back to the character of Tom, instead. One scene in particular kept coming up. In it Reverend Sykes, the pastor of the local African American church, explains to Scout and Jem why Tom Robinson’s left arm is shrunken and paralyzed.
“He got it caught in a cotton gin, caught it in Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s cotton gin when he was a boy . . . like to bled to death . . . tore all the muscles loose from his bones—” (249).
The questions that erupted were of grave concern for Tom’s childhood and for his arm.
“How could a cotton gin harm him? How hard must it have been for him to work with just one arm?”
“Do you think he endured more prejudice because he was disabled and black?”
The general atmosphere in the room was sorrow and grief, and many of them had distressed looks on their faces. They were worried about his arm among the many other injustices he was experiencing, and their compassion for him moved me. I was surprised that the students reacted so gutturally to what seems a minor detail in the trial scene. The whole scene is incredibly sad to read, as it becomes clear throughout that Tom will not be declared innocent of a crime he clearly didn’t commit.
I found it fascinating that by no effort of my own the students had made Tom Robinson the focal point of the conversation. I had, gravitated towards talking just about Atticus because it was what I had done before, but their curiosity and compassion for Tom led us to a beautiful discussion about his character. I realized that knowing both Tom and Atticus was essential to truly grasp the heart wrenching scene.
It was interesting to me that my first set of students in the suburbs of Chicago were so fascinated with the character of Atticus, and the ones in Alaska gravitated towards understanding Tom. This is not to say that my first students ignored Tom, or that my second set ignored Atticus, but they were drawn to different things.
Little twelve year-old me was swallowed into the book when I first read it, without even fully understanding the depth of it. There’s a universality to this text that draws students in unlike others. I found in both academic settings I’ve taught that even the most reluctant readers felt confident to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird because it gripped at their hearts in a way that a lot of books can’t. Beyond the characters of Atticus and Tom there are many other sub-stories in the text that focus on compassion for outsiders and those who are misunderstood. I think that’s what makes this story so powerful.
I love teaching, and I love teaching many books aside from just this one. But there have been specific little holy moments in my classrooms both in Chicago and Alaska when I teach Mockingbird that are hard to come by from other stories. Despite massive differences between the two places I’ve taught, and even the fact that my students were drawn to different things about it, I have found the students connected with the book and were in awe of it by the end.
Like Maycomb, the world my students live in today is messy and broken regardless of their home state. This story compels people across contexts to consider justice and what it means to make right choices even when it’s hard.
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