When I was 13, I first read the book that would set my life on a new course. As a high school senior, I reread it with a new perspective under the direction and master teaching of my AP English instructor, Tommy Honeycutt. And then when I was a senior at the University of Georgia, I read the book again as I student taught it to a room full of African-American high school freshman. Now in my seventh year of teaching (whoa…that makes me feel old), every year I have the true pleasure of leading one hundred eighth graders through the greatest American novel of all time: To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is difficult for me to know where to begin in expressing my love, adoration, respect, and obsession with this literary masterpiece. All I know is that I hug the book when I hold it. I press its words to me and try to internalize its values. Actually, I have a sizable portion memorized from teaching it five times a day for seven years. Harper Lee’s southern novel is as much a part of me as my curly hair and my 5’10” frame. The picture to the right is my new purchase from the artist Kent Ambler. I find myself drawn to art and decor with birds, no doubt a manifestation of my love for Mockingbird.
Without trying very hard, I can conjure up the wisdom of Atticus Finch and hope that I can come somewhere close to that level of integrity in my life.
Oh, Atticus. I will always call him my first love. I fell for him while sitting in one-half of a double-wide trailer on the grounds of Northwest Whitfield High School in Tunnel Hill, Georgia. Every afternoon we rushed into Tommy Honeycutt’s “learning cottage” and watched and listened in awe to the man who inspired me to do what I do for a living now. Honeycutt was in love with words, and he made us fall in love right with him. It was standard procedure for him to leap onto his desk, almost spilling his ever-present Dr. Pepper, and shout the Hallelujah chorus when he read a sentence that he loved. Mockingbird was his favorite novel, though I guess it pained him to name a favorite, probably like the impossibility of naming a favorite child. A framed picture of Gregory Peck dressed in the part of Atticus from the movie sat on Honeycutt’s desk at all times, and he would regularly involve him in our class discussions. Upon conversation of the struggles of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Honeycutt would ask Atticus how he would handle the hostility the Joads find in California, sort of like a literary spin on WWJD, rather What Would Atticus Do? My heart swelled for the Alabama lawyer, and I still sometimes forget that he doesn’t actually exist. Not only is he my first love, but he is my hero and my inspiration for the way I want to treat people. My students sometimes look at me like I am crazy when I too refer to the framed picture of Gregory Peck as Atticus that hangs in my own classroom, thanks to a generous group of friends who wanted me to be great like Honeycutt. I guess passion can make anyone look a little crazy. I’m ok with that.
If we could all be like Atticus, the world would be a much better place. We would live in a world of tolerance, dignity, consideration of others, humility, and quiet strength. We would know that it is indeed a sin to kill a mockingbird because they do nothing to harm us. We would be the same on public streets as we are in our own homes. We would climb into a person’s skin and walk around in it before making judgments and assumptions. We would practice true courage, beginning something and seeing it through, even when we have little chance of winning.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s novel. Next to the Bible, it is the number one book named as affecting people’s lives. That statistic almost makes me feel cliche in my love for the book, but when reading it, I feel like it was written for me. Its themes are timeless, its message is pure, its characters are memorable, and its merit is without question.
So, reader (if there are any of you), do you have a Mockingbird memory? Have you ever been so affected by a piece of literature? Please share.