My classroom desk copy is a 25th anniversary Warner Books paperback edition. As worn as an Indian head penny, it’s split down the middle where Scout, the precocious narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, describes the jury’s return to the courtroom: “A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.”
The classic is now in the 50th year since its initial July 1960 publication. My copy’s spine is no longer as rigid as the backbone of Atticus Finch, Robinson’s lawyer and one of literature’s eternal heroes for defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama.
My edition is coated in clear packing tape, and I’ve underlined almost every line in red as a teaching tool. I’ve vowed it will survive another decade. I’ll be 55 then. I’ll teach To Kill a Mockingbird’s 31st chapter for my 31st year, then retire and take my long walk home—just as Scout escorts “Boo” Radley home in the book’s final chapter.
Harper Lee’s touching tale has sold 40 million copies. It’s been translated into 40 languages, and it became an Oscar-winning film in 1962. Author Toni Morrison once told me she marvels at how the work continues to resonate with young readers. Last month, I participated in a book-group celebration of Mockingbird in Haverford. The speaker was Anthony Peck, a friend of Lee’s and the son of Gregory Peck, who won Best Actor honors for his portrayal of Atticus.
Somehow, To Kill a Mockingbird eluded me as a boy. I read it the first year I taught it, and countless times since. I owe a lot to the novel. I swell with pride to see kids mature under its wing. They come of age—just like Jem does in the book.
The novel’s rooted themes are ideal for teaching figurative and critical thinking. I urge my charges, “Dig deeper. The novel deserves and demands it!”
At home, my dogs have always been named after its minor characters—Dolphus Raymond (D.R.), Braxton Brag Underwood (B.B.) and Miss Maudie Atkinson (Maudie). My favorite line about Mr. Raymond, the perceived drunk with mixed children: “I liked his smell: It was of leather, horses and cottonseed.” It’s how my departed D.R. always smelled.
But the novel isn’t without its faults. I remain conflicted by the final compromise, and bothered that Atticus ultimately bends the law—even to spare Boo, a symbolic mockingbird. Tom isn’t spared, and the injustice still saddens me. Compromises—exceptions—bother me. It’s the fixes, the backroom and front-porch deals, that still create differences, divisions, inequality and intolerance. The book’s final compromise is so contrary to a definition of democracy that Scout provides: “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”
A few years ago, West Chester almost wouldn’t make an exception in naming a high school after Bayard Taylor Rustin. Debate was heated—not because he was black, but because he was openly gay. Finally, with approval, came the nod to his contributions to human rights.
Each school year, one student, one parent and one guidance counselor (none of whom have read the book) object to To Kill a Mockingbird’s use of the N-word. It’s surely vile, but I can’t change the word’s existence any more than I can alter Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “All men are created equal,” as Atticus suggests in his closing argument.
In the month we as a nation celebrate our independence, let these five words outlast all of our laws.
J.F. Pirro is MLT’s senior writer and a veteran high school English teacher.