12 Jul

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I would like to join other former and current English teachers in praise of a book that’s part of our nation’s collective memory.
It’s been called the best novel of the century, our “national novel” (per Oprah Winfrey) and the Great American Novel, according to a recent article in USA Today.
Certainly, it was my favorite novel to teach, and I gained more from it with each reading. I am not a Mockingbird scholar, but I did help develop lesson plans for it as a culminating project for my secondary education certification. I taught it to freshmen about six or seven times and enjoyed getting hammy with my lame Southern accent whenever I read portions aloud to my classes. I faithfully watched the movie every time I showed it, even when I could have been otherwise occupied at my desk.
Probably every teacher who’s taught it has a TKAM “moment” to share. Here’s mine:
I was in my first year of teaching, participating in an in-service involving more than 100 faculty members. The workshop leader — I forget the in-service’s topic — needed someone to give a synopsis of TKAM. This event probably occurred about the same month that I proclaimed to my students that TKAM was my favorite novel. I wanted to get them excited about it; at the same time, I realized — gosh — it probably was my favorite novel. So it was no time for a neophyte’s shyness. I stood up and delivered about three minutes’ worth of plot mixed with awe for Harper Lee. And then I got applause. Nice.
My students largely enjoyed the novel, after balking at its length. Some joined me in declaring it a favorite. In any event, they joined kajillions of other kids around the world who have been introduced to it.
It’s good for us to remember and to mention to students that TKAM has been a challenged novel. Especially a few decades ago, many schools banned it for its raw look at racism and its use of the n-word. Interestingly, we’re in a political climate today where another reading of the novel might provide valuable lessons in tolerance, justice and freedom of thought.
So a shout-out to 84-year-old Harper Lee for a Tuff Kickin’ American Masterpiece!


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