“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” -Scout Finch
The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was twelve. The last time I read it, I was 32. I swear, it gets better every time. I think one of the biggest perks of being an English teacher is getting to read and teach this novel over and over again (though having only taught it twice now, I could be wrong about this– maybe some teachers who have taught the novel 20 times have a different story).
But this year my co-teacher Lisa and I worried that she and I might be the last generation to adore the book– after all, the pedagogy text we’re teaching out of tells us that many members of the Millenial Generation are not passionate about the same literature as their forebears. Even, apparently, To Kill a Mockingbird is leaving young readers cold. The prospect made me sad. But, since I teach a group of students who are not only Millenials, but will be teaching our nation’s youth in the next few years, I decided to meet their tepid responses to the novel with fortitude.
Luckily, I was as wrong as can be. The hour and fifteen minutes we spent talking about the novel was far too short. Everyone was thrilled by it, wanted to interpret it, wanted to join the conversation. The book just begs to be talked about: Scout’s witty prescience, Maycomb’s hilarious inhabitants, Atticus’s infinite wisdom.
Lisa, who was taking charge that day, had a great activity. Everyone was assigned a character for whom they had to make a poster (I got ol’ Mrs. Dubose). On that poster we had to write a quote describing that character’s physical appearance, a quote that defined that character’s essence, and a statement either in the student’s own words or excerpted from the novel about why that character was so important to the story. Then we taped our posters to the wall, and did a “Gallery Walk” (a classroom activity that can fit many circumstances and grade levels– we as doctoral students even do them in our own classes), where we walk around and read other people’s posters. We can take notes on the quotes people chose, or chat about the poster with those standing near us. Then after a while we return to our seats and discuss what we learned. I learned how Harper Lee uses sight and vision in the novel– Atticus’s glasses, and his being “the deadest shot in Maycomb County” stuck out to me for the first time. I love when my students teach me new things.
So, happily, To Kill a Mockingbird is still going strong. In a wonderful documentary I watched about the novel, Hey Boo, I learned that the book has sold 50 million copies and is still one of the most widely taught books (it’s also one of the most widely banned ones!). But I suppose it will one day fall out of favor. Indeed, I hope that as Americans we will not always need to grapple with the issues that Lee presents in such a beautiful, wrenching way: racism, classism, sexism. Still, I hope I’m no longer in the classroom when students don’t need this book anymore.
If it’s been a while since you read To Kill a Mockingbird, I dare you to pick it up and read the first page. Before you know it, you’ll be reading the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last words– and thanking me.