As an English teacher, I’m biologically programmed to love certain books. Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Shakespeare anything, for example. But there’s also To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus.
For those who aren't familiar with the story (I sometimes forget there are people who don't read it five times a year), our young heroine, Scout, is forced to come face-to-face with the disturbing tradition of latent Southern racism when her father is tasked with defending a black man in a rape case. As she, her brother, and summertime friend grow together and experience the shockwaves of the case, they begin to question why, exactly, society deems it fit to cast certain people to the side. Readers begin to see the world as a child does, through innocent, questioning eyes. The book ends how you could probably predict--the man is found guilty and ultimately dies escaping prison--but the story of this one young girl reaches far beyond the pages of the book. It's a story that stays with you, one you revisit several times as Atticus' famous words ring clearer and truer: "They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again, and when they do it -- seems only the children weep."
I have a storied history with this book. I remember reading it in high school, by which I mean I remember carrying it in high school. I had a personal philosophy against reading anything I was supposed to, because I was a rebel even in the face of things I liked doing. As a kid, I struggled to acknowledge and check my own privilege, and I actively fought against having “certain stories shoved down my throat all the time.” I’m embarrassed to say that, but I say it because I know I have 2018 versions of past-me in my classroom right now. And I have the unique challenge to not only make those kids read Mockingbird, but also appreciate it.
This challenge has only increased with each year. I teach in an area with 80% of its students on free/reduced lunch, almost 60% African American. I’m just going to come out and say it: standing in front of my mostly-POC class, holding Mockingbird and saying, “sometimes people can be racist” feels obvious and disingenuous. But I can’t just not teach the book. It’s too important to skip, too necessary and too relevant to file away. I want my students—all of them—to know I’m fighting for those who have been silenced.
So, I highlight several other themes alongside the racism in hopes there’s something for everyone to connect with: Scout coming of age. The death of the children’s innocence. Dill’s complicated family life. Mrs. Dubose’s debatable bravery. We discuss racism, of course. But I also challenge the kids to look beyond, to classify Mockingbird not just as “That book about racism.” This approach has worked, for the most part.
It worked until 2016. Until I realized Aunt Alexandra bothered students 100 times more because she obviously would’ve voted for Trump. Until I had to come to work on November 9th and face a room of students who were asking me to explain what happened in their world last night. Then, this became so much more than the Unit Two Extended Text. This became a mirror to our lives, a jumping-off point for understanding our neighbors, family, and friends the same way Scout has to.
I haven’t taught To Kill a Mockingbird the same way since.
And now I’m faced with yet another challenge. Yet another ugly part of humanity is looking at us from the pages of this book. How do I teach this story about a false rape claim in 2018? How do I approach those who are suffering in silence in the face of indifference, skepticism, and social media posts siding more with the accused than their victims? How do I reach out to students who might identify with Mayella’s experiences, who are wondering why this book spends four chapters proving her to be a liar? How do I calm the young men’s fears that someone might one day use this same lie to ruin their lives, even though statistics say something like 2% of sexual assault claims are false, and the majority of assaults remain unreported? How do I engage 9th graders in this discussion when my heart breaks that this is something they have to think about in the first place?
There’s a line during the courtroom scene where our beloved Atticus Finch asks if Bob Ewell or Sheriff Tate ever attempted to contact a doctor for Mayella. At this moment, a student called out, “Always go to a doctor, duh!” Her words follow me. They haunt me. That someone so young would have to know this particular self-preservation strategy makes me so immeasurably sad. So hopeless.
But there is hope. I see it in my classroom every day. I see it when the students who were initially resistant to dive into “another racism book” find meaning and connection in its pages. And with every new challenge comes hope that the next generation can have these tough conversations and grow from them.
So what do I do now? I address the false claim, because it's become the elephant in the room. I tackle false claims as a whole, ready with the 2% statistic before someone else brings up the "power of a lie." Then, I point them to the line in Tom’s testimony: “She said she never kissed a grown man before… She said what her daddy do don’t count.” I point out that Mayella’s claim isn’t actually false, it’s just not aimed at the right person. She’s clearly terrified of her father. The best she can say of him is “he does tolable.” When Atticus mentions his drinking and violent tendencies, she pales and folds into herself. This is a story about sexual assault. But it’s also a story of a small Southern town’s inability to acknowledge the real monster in the room: Their desperate clinging to the past. Their hatred and fear. Their prejudice. And it’s this monster that sends an innocent man to his death.
But it’s also this monster that sends a victim of assault home with her abuser. This is, absolutely, a book about racism. And it’s a book about innocence, growing up, family, respect, and bravery.
And it’s a book about violence against women. It’s about the dangers of a world that makes women afraid to speak out against their abusers.
I will never again teach To Kill a Mockingbird without carefully acknowledging that. I owe it to my students, and I owe it to Mayella.