Sunday, November 16, 2008
In Winston-Salem last month, late at night when some of us were trying to get last- minute details finished for the English conference, someone mentioned that every teacher has that one book that is not negotiable: It must be taught. Deanie said for her it was Fiddler on the Roof, someone else mentioned Elie Wiesel's Night .
Awhile back a friend was mentoring a young teacher who had his own ideas about what was and wasn't important literature. He took issue with her firm conviction that everyone should read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines simply to be a human being. I feel the same way about To Kill a Mockingbird.
Now that I'm teaching in the community college, I often poll classes to see what they've read as they've gone through school. I'm often sad when I find out what they haven't read. For a long time, I was surprised how many had never read Gone with the Wind. Now I'm surprised how many haven't seen the movie. When they confess they haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, I tell them, "Go home now and read it. You need to read it to be a complete person, to be a good citizen." I've never had anyone who has read the book to disagree.
My love for the book has been fed by so many personal experiences. I read the book myself in high school, then I taught it to tenth graders in Alabama for my first five years of teaching. When our local community theater in Florence, Alabama, produced the play, I learned that Harper Lee's college roommate lived in town. Rumors have it that she actually did some of her writing there. I also made contact with Sarah Dyess, a middle school teacher in Monroeville, Alabama, the model for Maycomb. She had been mentioned in Teaching Tolerance magazine for a project she had conducted with her students and another class "up North."
As we corresponded, she actually shared a copy of a video her students had made to talk about life in Alabama, as well as a copy made from an old reel-to-reel made by a man who moved to Monroeville from New Jersey. He had filmed the Hog Festival, with scenes shot around downtown Monroeville. I fully expected to see Scout in her ham costume.
This week as we discussed the "one book theory" in the teacher's lounge, my friend Glenda Foster name Mockingbird before I mentioned. She said it was the one book that changed her life. She went on to say that the film ranks at the top of her list too. "Think about it," she said. "How many remakes have there been? Zero." I can't imagine a world without Atticus, Scout and Jem, without Boo Radley or Dill.
I'd like to imagine a world where Tom Robinson might have had his real day in court. One of the first times I taught the novel, we came to the scene in which Atticus was summing up his arguments for the jury. He talked about mob mentality and how men will do things in a mob they would never do individually. We came to that particular chapter the day after the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict. Atticus would not have been surprised. Sad, maybe, but not surprised.