Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird

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A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a book talk to a women’s group in my  town about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. My only credentials for that talk are these: I’ve read Mockingbird at least 35 times and I taught the novel to 9th graders for 31 years.  Several of those 35 reads occurred before I became a teacher. In fact, my mother gave Mockingbird to me for my birthday just before my senior year in high school—the year that the book was published.  I read it start to finish in one big gulp and then read it again, under the covers with a flashlight.  Lee’s story captured me right from the start.

For all those 31 years of teaching, I began each class’s study of Mockingbird by reading aloud just a bit about Atticus and the small town of Maycomb:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began to summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said that we were both right.

And with that, Atticus is established as the authority, the hero, and even a god.  “Our father.”

And then this, the description of the small town of Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the street turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I love this passage. In two short paragraphs reside lessons in dating the setting via allusion, the art of alliteration and metaphor, the inclusion of exquisite detail that brings a scene and the mood so indelibly into focus.  And the black dog: a tiny, tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a successful and respected lawyer and for a time was one of the publishers of the local newspaper.  Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a strange woman—possibly she suffered from bipolar disorder—and she and Nelle did not have a close relationship. Truman Capote lived next door in the summertime (His parents were divorced and he spent summers in Monroeville with relatives), and Nelle and Truman were fast friends.  Legend has it that they spent hours writing stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.  Nelle went to college and even did a year of what we’d call today, pre-law.  But she wanted to be a writer, so at age 23 she went to New York City to live and work.  Working days, first in a bookstore and later for Eastern Airlines and later still for BOAC, and writing at night, she produced a draft of a book.  Her agent first made suggestions for revision—which Nelle dutifully made—and then an editor at HarperCollins, Tay Hahoff (who died in 1974) spotted the real story in what seemed like a string of short stories.  Hahoff saw promise in the prose, too, and encouraged Nelle to revise the manuscript. Friends gave Nelle a Christmas present of enough money to live on for a year so she could write full-time.  What resulted, two and a half years later, was To Kill a Mockingbird.

 Mockingbird was published on July 12, 1960—right in the middle of a decade that began in 1954 with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court—ordering the desegregation of the public schools—and ended with the passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.  That’s important because the Civil Rights Movement, as it came to be called, dominated the news.  To Kill a Mockingbird was—and still is—a stab at the conscience of America.

The setting of Mockingbird is Maycomb (read, Monroeville) in the 1930s. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is often cited as the inspiration for the Tom Robinson story, but it wasn’t. A local and far less sensational rape case was the true model.  A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was, however, the inspiration for Atticus Finch.

Mockingbird—sometimes lauded for being a charming coming-of-age story (which it is)–follows two main plot threads. One is the trial of Tom Robinson, a humble black man who has been accused by a white man, Bob Ewell (the “mad dog” of the book), of raping his daughter, Mayella. She is a lonely young woman who has been sexually abused by her shiftless, alcoholic father.  She accosts Tom, and her father sees it.  Tom runs, though he’s done nothing wrong, and Ewell accuses him simply because he can. He thinks the town will thank him for it. Atticus Finch takes the case on principle: He couldn’t look his children in the eye—couldn’t make them mind him, he said—if he himself doesn’t do what is right.  But he knows he is fighting a losing battle: There is no precedent for acquittal in such a case, even when the defendant is plainly not guilty.  Speaking to the jury, Atticus memorably characterizes the case as being “as simple as black and white.”

The other thread in Mockingbird is that of Boo Radley, a strange and reclusive man who lives in a house down the street. Boo befriends the children—though they remain “spooked” by him–and ultimately saves their lives when Ewell attempts to kill them on a dark Halloween night. The two stories are thus brought together and Scout articulates the meaning of the title when she assures her father that prosecuting Boo Radley would be like shooting a mockingbird; that is, persecuting innocent and helpless individuals—like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley—who “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”  Thus, a string of short stories is woven together by the symbolism of mad dogs and mockingbirds.

Atticus is the quintessential epic hero.  A little aside here: I also taught The Odyssey and directed my students’ attention to the epic tradition.  The students drew the comparison easily—because it is there. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book was translated into 10 languages within a year of publication—ultimately, into 40—and has never been put of print.  In the 1962 film version, Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus. The book is still the most widely taught novel in schools across the country (a few attempts at banning it notwithstanding—in fact, those attempts only increased its readership!).  Atticus Finch was elevated to the status of a god—one who looks just like Gregory Peck.

Then came Watchman in 2015.  The publishers provided a trigger warning—and many people declined to read the book.  (Me included, even though I’d preordered from Amazon.) Atticus, we were told, turns into a racist.  It was a year before I read Watchman because each review was worse than the last.  Like a lot of other people, I didn’t want to be disillusioned.  Eventually, I gave in.  I’d written extensively about teaching Mockingbird on my blog. It seemed like chickening out not to read Watchman.  Now I’ve read it twice. That will probably be enough.

People usually mark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. On the heels of that decision came two momentous events: the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the end of a long, hard day. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled again, ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery buses.

Emmett Till’s funeral was portrayed in a photographic spread in Life magazine. The bus boycott ended after a year with another Supreme Court ruling, this one ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery, AL buses.  Those two events are the backdrop for Go Set a Watchman.

The book opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a visit. It appears at first to be a love story involving a boy who had lived across the street when Jean Louise was young, a boy whom Atticus has mentored and taken into his law firm.  In the book, Jem has died and Dill has gone missing. Two characters of major importance in Mockingbird aren’t in Watchman: the “ghost” Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose, the harridan who lives down the street and menaces the children but turns out to be a dying woman trying to get out from under a morphine addiction. Uncle Jack plays a much more important role in Watchman; Aunt Alexandra is still a foil for Atticus. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Scout and Jem, makes an appearance, but it’s a cold one.  And Atticus—well, Atticus at 72 is the same man in many ways, but there’s this disturbing thing about his stance on civil rights.

Indeed, in Watchman, Atticus is portrayed as a man with deep reservations about the events of the 1950s. In the book, he has joined the White Citizen’s Council in Maycomb—organizations like this had sprung up all over the South in response to those Supreme Court rulings.  In conversations with Jean Louise, Atticus espouses the policy of gradualism.  His remarks reveal not only a paternalistic attitude toward African-Americans, but downright racist ones.

I was prepared for Atticus.  It was Scout who appalled me.  Her outrage over her father’s attendance at the White Citizen’s Council meeting culminates in a scene full of excess, a confrontation with so much invective and vitriol that I was shocked.  Yes, Jean Louise is shocked by what she has learned about her father, but she screams at him, calls him names, and carries on beyond my ability to believe.  She’s also brutal in her attacks on her aunt—rude, profane, and frankly, unforgivable.  She knows better.

I told him in detail about our trip to church with Calpurnia. Atticus seemed to enjoy it, but Aunt Alexandra, who was sitting in a corner quietly sewing, put down her embroidery and stared at us.

“You all were coming back from Calpurnia’s church that Sunday?”

Jem said, “Yessum, she took us.”

I remembered something. “Yessum, and she promised that I could come out to her house some afternoon. Atticus, I’ll go next Sunday if it’s all right, can I? Cal said she’d come get me if you were off in the car.”

“You may not.”

Aunt Alexandra said it. I wheeled around, startled, then turned back to Atticus in time to catch his swift glance at her, but it was too late. I said, “I didn’t ask you!”

For a big man, Atticus could get up and down from a chair faster than anyone I ever knew. He was on his feet. “Apologize to your aunt,” he said.

“I didn’t ask her, I asked you—“

Atticus turned his head and pinned me to the wall with his good eye. His voice was deadly. “First, apologize to your aunt.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty, I muttered.

“Now then, he said. “Let’s get this clear: you do as Calpurnia tells you, you do as I tell , and as long as your aunt’s in this house, you will do as she tells you. Understand?”

I understood, pondered a while, and concluded that the only way I could retire with a shred of dignity was to go to the bathroom, where I stayed long enough to make them think I had to go.

That scene, a lesson in courtesy that couldn’t have failed to stick, is from Chapter 14 of Mockingbird, shortly after Aunt Alexander, the children’s nemesis, arrives to supervise Jem and Scout during the long, hot summer of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Watchman, to my mind, is more autobiographical than Mockingbird—in this way: It is far more revealing of Harper Lee’s state of mind in the 1950s.  The years of Watchman are the years that she was living in New York. She’d come back to Monroeville on the train for a visit—and undoubtedly she’d hear the rhetoric of the white families in her hometown.  At one point, early in the story, Atticus even asks her what the New York papers make of what’s “going on down here.”  It seems likely to me that in Watchman, Harper Lee was working through her own emotional responses to the events of the day and her reactions to the reactions of her family and community to these same events.

When I finally approached the book, I was already braced for Atticus. I expected to read amateurish writing—I did—but I also hoped I’d see a text that would make the power of revision clear to young writers, to my students.  With Mockingbird, I’d taught them more than how to read a novel, more than how to discover theme.  I’d opened their eyes to the elements of style.  So I hoped for early indications of that style in Watchman.  I found them.  Words, expressions, a proclivity for allusion, humor—though not much irony.  But the story seems thin to me—and disjointed.  There are some treats: a flashback to Scout, Jem, and Dill playing—not Boo Radley, but “Evangelist.” A long chapter featuring the loquacious Uncle Jack, as usual, circumventing a topic and making allusions to British history. A nice picture or two of various neighbors from Scout’s childhood days. It’s just that the richness, the fullness of Mockingbird isn’t there. Too much talk and not enough weaving of story line.  It’s as if the book had been stripped of its best parts—and it probably was. For Mockingbird.

Few critics like Watchman.

Some make a mistake that’s easy to make: It’s the same mistake I made by thinking Scout should know better than to be so rude to her father and her aunt.  The chronology of the two stories can be confused with the order in which they were written.  Watchman came first.  Atticus is 72 years old and the backdrop is 1956.  Mockingbird was written second—presumably as a revision of Watchman—and the backdrop is the 1930s.  In their responses to the publication, some people called Watchman the sequel—as if the two were intended one to follow the other.  Looked at that way, Atticus is indeed a disappointment.

Others knew something of the revision work Harper Lee had done and took the statement from the publisher at face value: Watchman was a draft and Mockingbird was the fruit of revision.  These reviewers looked at the “new” text for the seeds of Mockingbird and noticed that the story of Atticus and the rape trial is presented in just a paragraph and as a flashback. They noticed the shortcomings of a novice writer and expressed the opinion that Watchman should never have been published. The second publication tarnishes the first.

Many questioned the motives of Lee’s lawyer in providing the book to HarperCollins and HarperCollins for publishing it. They speculated that Lee, hard of hearing and poor of eyesight, ill and in a nursing home, had been manipulated into publishing the book.  There’s been so much confusion that we still don’t know the provenance of the book for sure.

Some said, and I agree, that in terms of producing literature, Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hahoff, was brilliant: Here’s your story—the rape case—now run with it—and somehow, make all these short stories into a coherent piece.  Which Harper Lee did, producing, to the benefit of readers everywhere and especially to the benefit of English teachers who know the book is a cornucopia of lessons in narrative arc, character development, symbolism, irony, and style, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Long, languid sentences and hilarious scenes of children at play evoke the best of a time and place gone by.  Short, direct, blunt utterances, a scene when Atticus shoots a rabid dog, and carefully crafted court scenes carry the message that prejudice is a disease and reveal the hard truth that the justice system is imperfect. The climax—when Scout meets Boo Radley at last and discovers his humanity is a touching depiction of the moral imperative to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.

For a while after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee herself spoke of trying to write a second book.  It was going to be about race. Presumably, the setting would be Maycomb, or at least Alabama.  Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, ventured this idea: Did Lee return to the original Watchman years after Mockingbird was published?  Did she revisit her first draft when she was older and struggling under the pressure of success to write a second book?  Is Watchman actually a post-1960 revision of the original first draft?  Gopnik points out that Watchman is confusing without a prequel, without Mockingbird. He points out that the shock of Watchman is only felt if the reader already knows Mockingbird.  If not, he posits, who would care about Atticus’s “fall from grace?”

But we are not going to know the whole story. It remains a literary mystery.  Or at least it will until another manuscript is “discovered.”  The best we can do now is enjoy Watchman, if we did, for what it is: the incomplete work of a novice writer.  Or, if we hold with Gopnik, the unfinished work of an extraordinary writer faced with an impossible task: producing another book that could hold a candle to her first.

And, this of course: We can continue to relish Lee’s enduring masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

Traveling Companions

Was there ever a trip I took that didn’t involve a book—or a stack of books?

I don’t think so.

When I was a child, my family journeyed every summer from our home in Illinois to our grandparents’ summer cottage in northern Wisconsin—loaned to us by them for six weeks in June and July. We traveled in two cars—my mother and father driving, and we four children and our two Springer spaniels distributed evenly between them—on a journey that took (in those years before interstate highways) all day. Each of us kids brought along treasures to help the time pass. I brought books—as many as I could fit into a small brown cosmetic case that belonged to my grandmother. Stacked there neatly, and cushioned by a sack of anise candy, the books kept me company all day long and well into the weeks ahead.

During my elementary school years, most of my vacation reading material came from the last Scholastic Book Club order of the school year. A few of the books I brought were old favorites from my bookcase—The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Understood Betsy—and sometimes my grandmother gave me a new book as an early birthday present just before the trip got underway. When I was a little older, the books were fatter and there weren’t so many of them—Little Women and Jane Eyre lasted longer than the car trip—but they, too, traveled with me in the little brown cosmetic case.

I remember deliberating for weeks about those books. If they were to be new ones, I had to be sure I would like them—I didn’t want to waste space on something that would lose its appeal within a few pages. That meant a series book, or an author I already knew, or at least a topic that I knew would hold my interest. So yes to Betsy Ray and Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. Yes to Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott. Yes to books about children with problems and the teachers and therapists who helped them, yes to books about children in other countries, and yes to biographies of writers and pioneers of all kinds.

I kept that up every summer—selecting books to accompany me on my travels—never suspecting that my choices were doing anything more than sweetening my days.

Later in life (as an English teacher, of course), when I traveled to Russia with my students, I carried along books I intended to leave behind. I suggested to my students that they do the same. The books had to be ones I could part with (The DaVinci Code) because the space they occupied in my carry-on would be given over on the return trip to my purchases. The books had to be intriguing enough to compete with the novelty of living in a foreign country (Year of Wonders), but universal enough that my Russian friends would want them (Harry Potter).

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: left in a Moscow hotel.  The History of Love: left in a cardboard box filled with books in English that to this day circulates among young women working for NGOs in Rwanda. Something else, not so memorable, left in the airport in Lima. Another quick read, swapped out for The Human Comedy in a coffee shop in Colorado. I’ve left books behind all over the country and in places around the world. I see now that what I have done is leave bits of myself behind as well.

I still deliberate about the books I’ll read in the summer. These days when I travel, it’s often to a place where internet technology isn’t available and cell phones don’t work: it’s just the books I’ve selected and me, together for a stretch.  Of course, I’ve got a Kindle now, but not the ability to order a title from my living room or (yes) my bed.  So even the electronic library I amass each summer is carefully chosen ahead of time, and the same constraints apply: no set-asides if I can help it, yes to familiar authors and new information that I’ll happily anticipate settling in with, yes to long-time favorites.  That means that Maisie Dobbs and V. I. Warshawski can come along any time, as can anything by Barbara Kingsolver or Colum McCann. This year I’ve stacked up the audio tape of All the Things We Cannot See (my favorite read of the past winter), a reflective piece on health care called God’s Hotel (recommended by friends), Archangel (a National Book Award winner), and a classic I haven’t read in years: A Tale of Two Cities. And about mid-July, I am expecting a literary guest to arrive: Miss Jean Louise Finch.  Yes, I am anxiously awaiting To Set a Watchman. For good or bad or somewhere in between, it’s going to be wonderful to spend time with Scout again.

But as I was selecting my companions for this summer, I was struck not only by the longevity of this ritual, but by the impact of my choices. The books I selected in the summers when I was a child and the ones I choose today have done much more than help me pass time in a pleasant way. They’ve been formative, exerting on my personality the power and influence of theirs.

When books end, we don’t ever really set them aside. Oh, they take up space on our shelves, but they also take up residency in our minds. They are a part of who we are, remembered fondly as old friends, embraced as traveling companions on the trip through our lives.

Maybe that is why, when I encounter titles I know at a used book sale, or on a shelf in a coffee house, or in a collection set aside for hotel guests, they are immediately recognizable to me, dressed as they often are in tattered covers and battered spines. I can’t resist snatching them up, as if responding to a call:  “Remember me? Here I am!”

So yes, I quite often say. Let’s travel together again. You’ll be very good company indeed!

A version of this post appeared last summer in the online site Nerdy Book Club.

About the Dog

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley place. A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

I thought I was done writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, but a colleague recently asked me a question about the dog.

Tim Johnson, I mean: the rabid dog that Atticus shoots in Chapter 10.

Sometimes Chapter 10—the mad dog chapter—is anthologized as a stand-alone short story. In that case, it’s a lovely piece about a boy coming to see his father as a hero. Chapter 11 isn’t accorded the same status—I don’t see it ever as a stand-alone—but these two chapters, which seem to most students at first read to be unrelated to either the Boo Radley story or the Tom Robinson story are, I contend, the two most important chapters in the book. In them, Harper Lee lays the groundwork for the major themes of the novel, and the story of Atticus shooting the dog does more than round out his character by giving us some background information on his “talent.” It establishes him for certain as the hero of the story: an epic hero, to be precise. The Mrs. Dubose chapter gives us the hero’s own definition of courage.

But back to the dog.

Tim Johnson is very much a character in this story. His name is the first clue. He’s not Spot or Old Blue or Rover or any other identifiable dog name. He’s Tim Johnson. A human’s name.

That Atticus kills him is the second clue that he’s important.

Tim Johnson is lurching down the street on a cold February morning. Calpurnia summons the sheriff in a frantic phone call, herds the children inside, and defies common sense and convention by running up on the Radley’s front porch to warn the occupants not to open their door. A mad dog is coming.

photo of rabies notesThe day before we discuss Chapter 10 in class, my homework assignment is for students to look up “rabies” online and write down its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment. The next day, we brainstorm all of that on the board.

The key thing is this: Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system, a disease of the mind. It makes the dog (or person) who has it irrational, unpredictable, and erratic. The victim will attack anything in its path. Rabies spreads by a bite—by mouth—and the treatment is painful. Treated too late, the disease is fatal.

For a dog as far gone as Tim Johnson, the only thing to do is to shootphoto 2 of rabies notes him. And that is what Atticus does. He stands in the middle of a deserted street, takes aim, fires, and the dog falls over, dead.

Like all epic heroes, though, Atticus is reluctant to undertake this task; he steps in only because no one else can or will. Heck Tate relies on Atticus to do the job because, as we (along with Jem and Scout) find out, Atticus was called “Ol’ One Shot” when he was a boy.

At this point, I just let that information sink in and we go on to Chapter 11. Here we learn that Atticus thinks the vitriolic Mrs. Dubose is the “bravest lady he ever knew.” She fights a morphine addiction so she can die free and clear. No need for that. She’s going to die, so who cares if she’s addicted? Atticus says she’s brave because “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

This is all groundwork for the trial. Established beyond a doubt as the hero of the book, we now want to know, will our hero live up to his own definition of courage in the second half of the book? And what about that dog? What does Tim Johnson represent?

Occasionally, an alert student will remember that Atticus referred to “Maycomb’s usual disease” when he was talking to his brother, Jack—and that we all read “prejudice” into that remark. Once in a great while, a student will remember (or the teacher–that would be me–will recall) the description in Chapter 5 of Miss Maudie vehemently attacking the nut- grass in her yard, telling the children that “one sprig of nut-grass can ruin a whole yard.” The wind, she said, would spread the seed all over Maycomb County—an occurrence that would resemble an “Old Testament pestilence.”

If they do remember this early groundwork, that reinforces the unmistakable connection students make when Bob Ewell takes the stand in Part II of the novel. Irrational, unpredictable, and erratic, Bob spews his verbal venom on Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell’s target and the only witness to Bob Ewell’s vicious response when he sees her through the window, accosting Robinson. Rabies, of course, is meant to represent prejudice…

“And Bob’s the mad dog!” I usually don’t need to draw the analogy myself. The students get it.

Atticus knows how the trial will end before it even begins—but he goes forward with his defense of Tom anyway. Why?

Because he must.

He’s already explained that to his brother Jack. It’s the right thing to do, but he runs the risk of his children being morally injured—the trial and the vitriol may be so hard on them that they’ll be resentful and catch the disease. But if he doesn’t do the right thing, he tells Jack, he couldn’t look his children in the eye. So it’s at great personal risk—typical of the epic hero—that he steps forward to do what heroes do.

And why does Ewell bring charges against Tom? Tom isn’t going to report him. No way. So why does Ewell do it?

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

Prejudice has so poisoned the town (except for a few souls like Atticus, Miss Maudie, and we later discover, Judge Taylor and Heck Tate) that Ewell seizes his opportunity to attack Tom. He knows full well that Tom will be convicted. For once in his life, Ewell thinks, he will be the recipient of the town’s gratitude and be “one up” on his moral superior, the black man who lives down the road.

Except that, when the trial is over, the town despises Ewell all the more. The people know the truth, even though the men on the jury convict Tom. Except for a Cunningham who makes the jury deliberate for a few hours—a record for a case like this in the 1930s—the men on the jury are, after all, only men. They’ve been infected, too, and can’t see beyond society’s unwritten black and white rules.

Just as Atticus is only a man. He lifts the gun in the courtroom, fires—and misses. But everyone knows the truth. He has made them know it.

Mayella is shamed, Ewell is despised even more, Atticus is sickened, and Jem learns a bitter truth: The justice system he idealizes is flawed. An innocent man has been convicted. Even his father, whom he idolizes by now, can’t make things right. With this loss of innocence, Jem comes of age.

A lot is being said about close reading these days, and that’s exactly the way all this about mad dogs—and later about mockingbirds—is revealed. With that and some carefully placed questions. I don’t lecture—that’s not my style and not my forte. But we read and reread, the students and I, and through that process, from all corners of the room, comes the understanding that the dog and Bob Ewell are inextricably linked, that the two episodes are meant to be compared.

A single, strangely-constructed sentence seals it: A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

So about the dog…

A Christmas Memory

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird were one and the same person.

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud.  Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”  It was worse than that, actually.  I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.

Questioning the Quality

In Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, Huck, the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, stumbles upon the Grangerfords, a family of some wealth. Huck calls them “the quality,” and at first he is awed by the Grangerfords—by their possessions, by their manners, even by the sentimental poetry of their dead daughter Emmaline. The Grangerfords, for all their “gentility,” have sustained a feud with their neighbors, the Shepherdsons, for countless years. When Huck’s new friend, Buck Grangerford, is killed in a shootout with the Shepherdsons, Huck realizes that the Grangerfords’ fortune and finery are quality only on the surface; underneath, these people are vengeful and brutal murderers. Their wealth disguises the poverty of their souls. Through the use of irony, Twain reveals the important truth that the family you are born into is not the determiner of character. True aristocracy is not about class, but character.

Harper Lee comes from the same tradition.

Here’s another selection from To Kill a Mockingbird, a passage from Chapter 13, shortly after Aunt Alexandra has come to Maycomb, unbidden, to keep an eye on Scout and Jem while the Tom Robinson trial is underway. In my 9th grade class, we’ve been talking about Harper Lee’s technique in revealing Atticus’s character, and this passage presents him in contrast with his sister, whose notions of Southern aristocracy run counter to Atticus’s fundamental belief in the equality of all people. Alexandra has asked Atticus to talk to the children about their background, but in this scene, Harper Lee lets the reader know how Atticus really feels about his sister’s notions of class superiority.

“How do you know,” I ask the students when I begin reading this passage aloud, “that Atticus is uncomfortable in this conversation? That the children are uncomfortable? As I read, pay attention to the details that tell you.”

Before bedtime I was in Jem’s room trying to borrow a book when Atticus knocked and entered. He sat on the edge of Jem’s bed, looked at us soberly, then he grinned.

Here I’d interrupt myself and ask, “What does this word soberly mean? We’ve already learned that Atticus doesn’t drink.”

It’s important to ask a question about a word like soberly. Many students have only heard the word in the context of drinking alcohol. Such a misinterpretation could seriously affect the way they read the rest of the passage.

Someone supplies the meaning—seriously—and I go on.

“Er—h’rm,” he said. He was beginning to preface some things he said with a throaty noise, and I thought he must at last be getting old, but he looked the same. “I don’t know how to say this,” he began.

Well, just say it,” said Jem. “Have we done something?”

Our father was actually fidgeting. “No, I just want to explain to you that—your Aunt Alexandra asked me—son, you know you’re a Finch, don’t you?”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” Jem looked out of the corners of his eyes. His voice rose uncontrollably. “Atticus, what’s the matter?”

Atticus crossed his knees and folded his arms. “I’m trying to tell you the facts of life.”

Jem’s disgust deepened. “I know all that stuff,” he said.

Atticus suddenly became serious. In his lawyer’s voice, without a shade of inflection, he said, “Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations gentle breeding—“ Atticus paused, watching me locate an elusive redbug on my leg.

About here I stop again and ask the students to explain what “gentle breeding” means. It’s the central idea of the passage, so the meaning must be clear. The two words aren’t hard ones, but combined, they convey an entirely different idea than either word alone. Breeding, the students have little trouble with. But juxtaposed with gentle? Eventually someone hits on refined, or a similar word. But that produces puzzlement—until they remember Aunt Alexandra’s obsession with social status.

“It means you come from a high class!”

“It means you’re better than everyone else.”

“It’s snobby.”

“Gentle breeding,” he continued, when I had found and scratched it, “and that you should try to live up to your name—“ Atticus persevered in spite of us: “She asked me to tell you you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman that you are. She wants to talk to you about the family and what it’s meant to Maycomb County through the years, so you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly,” he concluded at a gallop.

Stunned, Jem and I looked at each other, then at Atticus, whose collar seemed to worry him. We did not speak to him.

Again, just in case, I stop to ask what collar seemed to worry him means. Some students have trouble with idioms, so this is a good chance to make the expression clear.

“He was doing like this,” someone volunteers. “You know, running his finger under it like this.” The student demonstrates. “But really, it means he’s uncomfortable.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s why he was talking so fast.”

“He was fidgeting, it says.”

“And that throaty noise. He’s coughing to clear his throat.”

“He’s nervous!”

Presently I picked up a comb from Jem’s dresser and ran its teeth along the edge.

“Stop that noise,” Atticus said.

His curtness stung me. The comb was midway in its journey, and I banged it down. For no reason, I felt myself beginning to cry, but I could not stop. This was not my father. My father never thought these thoughts. My father never spoke so. Aunt Alexandra had put him up to this, somehow. Through my tears I saw Jem standing in a similar pool of isolation, his head cocked to one side.

“One more detail that tells you Atticus is uncomfortable?”

“His tone! Scout says His curtness stung me.”

“What details tell us the children are uncomfortable?

“Scout says This was not my father.”

“Before that?”

“The comb. She isn’t thinking about what she’s doing. She’s thinking about what he’s saying and runs it down the dresser edge.”

“Before that?”

“She won’t look at him. She’s picking at a bug on her leg.”

“So she’s uncomfortable. Is Jem?”

“Yes, he’s looking out of the corners of his eyes at Atticus. Like he’s suspicious.”

“And Scout says he’s in a similar pool of isolation. That means she feels alone and he does, too. They feel like Atticus has left them. This isn’t the real Atticus.”

“What can you conclude about Atticus’s point of view? How does he really feel about being ‘a Finch’?”

“He doesn’t believe all that.”

And indeed, a few paragraphs later, Atticus tells the children to “forget it.”

Finally, a question to stretch the students’ understanding: “How do you think Harper Lee, the author, feels about this issue of background? Is she on Aunt Alexandra’s side or Atticus’s?”

“Well, she’s arranged the details so we think Aunt Alexandra’s point of view is wrong.”

“She’s presented the scene through Scout’s eyes.”

“Yes, that’s right. But is there something else—something in the text we haven’t focused on in this way?”

Sometimes I give the students a hint: It’s a bit of irony.

Then another if they haven’t hit upon it: “Gentle breeding—“

“Oh! All the while Atticus is talking about ‘background,’ Scout is picking at a bug. Then she scratches it.”

“She’s the opposite of refined!”

“And then the author writes gentle breeding again!”

Very sly.

“So what does Harper Lee think?”

“All that class stuff is a lot of hooey.”

Kids can spot prevarication and deception in a heartbeat, so they have no trouble grasping the tenor of this passage and little difficulty seeing that the passage underscores, in the end, the integrity of the hero. What they need help with is understanding the craft of fiction and explaining how the author made her point and revealed her attitude. How any author makes a point. That is done with questions, questions whose answers are grounded in the text. Asking them is the teacher’s job. Answering them, the students’.

Yep. “The quality”: A lot of hooey.

In the tradition of Huckleberry Finn.

A Grammar Lesson

From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Daylight…in my mind, the night faded. It was daytime and the neighborhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. It was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk toward a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

Once they understand that Boo killed Bob Ewell, another issue looms for the students. We haven’t talked about Boo’s motive for stabbing Bob, and by now they realize this: Every action has a motive. Of course the students know Boo cares about the children. He leaves gifts for them in a live oak tree (until his brother Nathan cements up the hole): a broken pocket watch, a spelling medal, soap dolls, chewing gum, and other artifacts of a young boy’s life. But how deep is this caring? What is its nature?

The answer is in the paragraph above, which appears at the very end of the book when Scout is standing on the Radley porch. I read this section slowly, carefully—sometimes two times before anyone notices the author’s sleight of pen.

Finally, this comes, sometimes tentatively, sometimes in an explosion of understanding:

“’Boo’s children needed him.’ He thinks of Jem and Scout as his children!”

“He left presents for them in the tree.”

“The pocket watch! Fathers give their sons their watches.”

“He put a blanket around Scout at the fire!”

“But the text says ‘A man walked into the street, fired a gun’: That’s Atticus.”

“This is confusing.”

I ask them then to think about what the author has done and to find the exact place in the text where she does it.

“She says ‘his children’ and we think Atticus.”

“But she means Boo. We assumed Atticus…”

“Because all the details are about him!”

“Because he’s their father!”

“Because we know the rule!”

We’ve been talking about pronouns for some time. I’ve pounded the rule into their heads, and they can recite it from memory: Every pronoun has an antecedent with which it must agree in case, number, and gender. Antecedent comes from Latin: ante (before) and cedere (to go). The term makes perfect sense: The antecedent comes before the pronoun.

“The true antecedent comes after the noun here!’

I can almost hear low whistles.

Slick.

They like it.

And they understand the depth of Boo’s feeling. He cares for Scout and Jem as a parent does—and parents would do anything to protect their children. Even put themselves at risk to come to their children’s rescue.

So in a way, this lesson, just like the last one, is about the danger of making assumptions—and this blog entry is a plug for grammar instruction.

Sure, the students could “get it”—could understand they’d been misled—without knowing the rule. I could have said that the author just flipped the men’s names to create an effect. But the trick is more subtle than that. Atticus’ name is never used. Understanding the technicalities of Harper Lee’s maneuver reveals to the students—maybe for the first time—that author’s craft their work. Understanding precisely what occurred in the text tells the students that writers are deliberate.

I’m not saying no teacher will ever have to visit pronoun antecedents again with these students. No, it takes repeated interactions with any concept to make the point indelibly. But being able to use the language of grammar to explain the author’s technique gives students a sense of authority, of control over language.

We want students to do close analysis of text—meanings of words, arrangement of details, syntactical analysis. Grammar helps us do this.

All by itself, though, grammar instruction can be pretty dull for a whole lot of kids. Granted, there are some who take to it. (Believe it or not, one year I met after-school with a group of grammar devotees who called themselves “The Diagramming Club.”) But for most young students, we need to hang our grammar lessons on some kind of hook.

Harper Lee’s is a classy one.

Who Killed Bob Ewell?

Students rarely understand exactly what happens at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. I like to use their befuddlement strategically to help them put the clues together.

Heck Tate puts them together very quickly when he discovers Bob Ewell dead under the oak tree near the Radley’s house. Heck takes Ewell’s switchblade from the scene and later tells Atticus he “took it off a drunk man.” My students take that remark at face value. Bob Ewell is a drunk and Heck’s a sheriff, so the students make the assumption that Heck picked up the knife earlier in the evening on his usual rounds. They don’t imagine that a law enforcement officer would tamper with the evidence to perpetrate a cover-up. But making those two assumptions is how even Atticus is temporarily misled.

Heck’s motive, of course, is to protect Boo, the children’s reclusive, awkward, ghost-like neighbor. Ultimately, Boo—if he killed Bob Ewell—would be acquitted of the murder charge he’d face, but in the interim, he’d be subjected to a trial and then to a storm of appreciation from the town folk.

I could just tell the students what happened, but that is never my preferred style. Instead, I have them act out the ending of the book because, through role-playing, they discern the answer for themselves. The process of discovery is not only fun, it’s a chance at the beginning of the year for the students to delve deep into a text and to have an analytical discussion without the formality of hands in the air.

I take volunteers for the various roles and urge the students to reread the text carefully so they can act the story out just as it happens. Even so, the next day, when I hold up two plastic knives labeled “switchblade” and “kitchen knife” and say that the actors who need the knives should take them, they all look at one another mystified. Usually the student playing Heck, thinking I’m just supplying props to make the scene more realistic, takes the switchblade. That leaves the kitchen knife for Bob Ewell—another error.

The troupe of actors retreats to the hallway to block out their performance. Meanwhile, I tell the rest of the students: “They’re going to make a mistake. It’s your job to figure out what they got wrong—so follow along in the text.”

While the group in the hall is blocking the scene—and having their own discussion about those two knives—the other students and I move all the desks to the back of the room. We clear a large space at the front of the room and sit on the floor more or less like a theater audience or in chairs that are informally arranged in front of the “stage.”

The actors enter, books in hand, Scout yelling “Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!”

Jem puts his hand on her head, steering her along, and Bob Ewell enters, stalking the two children as they make their way across the classroom to the corner designated as the Finch home. The students read the lines aloud and carry out the actions indicated. I read the narration.

Boo hears the children, comes out of his house, pulls Bob away from Jem, and then…

Sometimes the actors show Boo stabbing Bob with the kitchen knife. Sometimes they show Bob falling on his knife. Sometimes there’s a radical deviation from the text and the troupe tries to show that Jem killed Bob. After all, that’s what Atticus first thinks. Depending upon what the students have decided to do with the switchblade, more difficulty can arise when Heck Tate comes along to examine the body. In any case, the students’ first error is usually at the tree, and the second one occurs when Heck examines the body.

In many years of doing this, only once did a group nail the ending on the first try.

It takes a series of mental leaps to realize that
• Bob had a switchblade.
• Boo had a kitchen knife.
• Boo stabbed Bob with the kitchen knife.
• Bob then had both knives—a switchblade in his hand and a kitchen knife “up under his ribs”
• Heck relieved Bob of the switchblade.
• No one will question Bob “falling on his knife.”
• Heck Tate reasons that justice is ultimately served because Boo would be acquitted in a trial and the man responsible for Tom Robison’s conviction is now dead.

By now, the actors have stopped acting and are huddled up on the floor with the audience. I am off to the side or somewhere in the mix, asking pertinent questions. But the students are talking to each other, looking back at the text, and arguing constructively over what took place. They lead each other through the sequence of events and untangle the circumstances that lead Heck Tate to his declaration. They support their claims with textual evidence and counter each other’s errors the same way. It’s awesome to watch.

In the end, we have an animated conversation about Heck Tate’s preemptive decision to “let the dead bury the dead this time.” He tells Atticus— emphatically—“I’m the sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife,” leaving Atticus with no questions, no choice, and no responsibility for not pursuing justice, in this case to the point of injustice.

There’s more than one hero in Maycomb County, the students conclude.

This lesson, of course, is an example of the constructivist approach to reading comprehension. Through close examination of the text, the students discern for themselves the author’s meaning. They’re collaborating to put the puzzle pieces together, and they’re actively involved in the process. With or without the name—constructivist approach—this is a powerful way to engage kids, build skills of textual analysis, and have a lot of fun the same time.

And the answer is Boo. The kids just proved it.

Figure It Out: A Reading Comprehension Lesson

I’m a big fan of structuring lessons so that students can figure things out on their own. In the education world, what I am talking about is sometimes called the constructivist approach, sometimes called inquiry-based learning, sometimes called—well, whatever the name, lessons learned this way usually stick—and in the act of discovery, students are empowered as learners.

Here’s an example of what I mean: a reading comprehension lesson involving allusions—in this case, in the context of one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird. The goal is to show students how allusions enrich the meaning of a text—how to spot them, how to decode them, how to make meaning of what is frequently an analogy.

For example, take this dialogue between Scout and Jem, in Chapter 2:

“Don’t worry, Scout, “ Jem confronted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way.—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”

“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I—”

“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”

I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Students might be vaguely puzzled by “Dewey Decimal System,” but they could just as easily pass right over the reference. If they do, though, they miss the humor in Jem’s misnomer. That’s the way allusions work, I explain to them. They aren’t necessary to understanding the plot, but knowing that Jem is confusing a library cataloguing system with the education reformer John Dewey is funny. Furthermore, in this short passage, we get a glimpse of Jem as an occasionally annoying big brother who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Since this is a sibling type many students know first-hand, this depiction of Jem rings true and helps some students to directly and immediately identify with Scout.

That’s the concept. To get started with the lesson, I print and cut into slim strips a list of other allusions from To Kill a Mockingbird, put the strips in a hat, and pass the hat around the room. Students “draw” a strip, and I tell them that the first part of their assignment is to figure out the literal meaning of the words on the strip. (The same strategy could be used with any text that is heavily allusive. I’ve used it with Shauna Seliy’s coming-of-age story, When We Get There, and with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, for example.)

This part of the assignment used to be more difficult than it is now. Years ago, before Google, before Wikipedia, before the website To Kill a Mockingbird: The Student Survival Guide (www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Belmont_HS/tkm/), I’d take my students to the library so they could look through books and print encyclopedias to find the answers. Some of the allusions weren’t so easily identifiable, so I’d allow them to ask other people for help—other people but me, that is. My lips were sealed—except to suggest books they might check or to provide hints that would send them in a fruitful direction. After they knew what they had—sometimes a parent would, understandably, just tell them—they’d have to find at least two print sources that explained the allusion and then summarize the meaning and document their sources.

I still ask my students to do this, but thanks to electronic searches, it’s the easy part of the assignment now.

The next step is finding the allusion in context. They’re spread throughout the novel, so while I distribute the strips early on, it will be late in the story before the task is completed by everyone. Once the students come upon their allusions, they write a paragraph explaining the allusion’s purpose in the text. This can be challenging for young readers; nevertheless, they often make amazing connections and articulate insights that astonish me.

Some allusions, such as “Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself [my italics],” help the reader establish the time period of the story. So do items like “linotype machine,” or “flivver,” or “Ladies Law.” Other allusions establish place: “Jitney Jungle” and “Bellingrath Gardens,” for example, make explicit that this story takes place in the South. These allusions authenticate what the author has already told us: the setting is Maycomb County, Alabama. Some “place” allusions supply deeper background information as well: “Stonewall Jackson ran the Creeks up the creek” is a reference to the intersection of Alabama history, Native American history, and Finch family history.

There are some tougher ones, though, like “Lord Melbourne,” a British parliamentarian who loved the ladies. When Uncle Jack tells Scout about Lord Melbourne in response to her asking him what a “whore-lady” is, he reveals his discomfort in discussing adult topics with children. His circumlocution, of course, contrasts with Atticus’ straightforward responses to his children. Thus, the allusion to Lord Melbourne (which is obscure for most readers, not just 9th graders) helps to build the character of both men. A student could have read the paragraph, been temporarily confused, but ultimately not concerned, because the allusion does not advance the plot. And yet, “getting” the reference to Lord Melbourne deepens the reader’s understanding.

So does this one, another reference made by Uncle Jack: When he and Atticus are discussing the upcoming trial of Tom Robinson—whom Atticus has been appointed to defend—Uncle Jack remarks, “’Let this cup pass from you,’ eh?‘” Untangling that one means linking the Biblical reference to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane—O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39)—to Atticus’ wish that he didn’t have to step into the role of defense attorney in what he knows will be a losing battle. He knows as well that defending Tom Robinson will stir up the town: His children may be the targets of people’s vitriol, and he could lose them in a backlash. Nevertheless, in the same conversation with Uncle Jack, Atticus is clear. He says that he couldn’t ask his children to obey him if he didn’t defend Tom. He will comply with the court order. A student could, of course, explicitly make the Christ symbol connection—but, more likely for a 9th grader, the student who understands the allusion will see the analogy between Christ’s situation and Atticus’ and understand that the comparison supports the picture of Atticus that has building throughout the story: He will do what he must. He will do the right thing.

But the task of building meaning isn’t over. It isn’t enough, to my mind, for a student to know only his or her own allusion. Sometimes, depending upon curriculum needs, I’ve had students report out on their allusion while the others take notes, but this process takes more time than I often have. Recently, I’ve accomplished my purpose much more expediently by posting the students’ work on the walls of the classroom.

Each paper has three parts: the paragraph from the text where the allusion appears, the explanation of the allusion, and then the paragraph about its purpose or how it enriches the meaning. The students circulate around the room, pen and paper in hand, and take notes on what their peers have written. This takes about one class period. I keep silent, read over the students’ shoulders, check the written work to be sure the students have explained their allusions clearly and correctly. Misunderstandings are infrequent, I find. If something isn’t quite right, it’s usually easy enough to question the student on the side, and he or she will see the confusion and make the adjustment on the spot.

By the end of the hour, each student has compiled a list of allusions and their meanings. In essence, they have taught each other some pretty sophisticated vocabulary and deepened each other’s understanding of the text. They’ve also learned a valuable reading skill: how to identify and figure out an allusion. A short matching quiz the next day confirms that the “vocabulary” has been learned (Most kids score 100%), but more importantly, the students come away understanding what an allusion is and how one works in a text.

Imagine how tedious this would have been if I had stopped in our reading to explain every one of these connections. I would have grown tired of the sound of my voice—and the kids would have yawned. Openly.

Instead, they figured it all out on their own, taught each other, and know they can do the same thing independently with the next book they read. That’s empowerment.

This Enormous Business

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.