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"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Report

I was a retired teacher and live-aboard in Seattle. Now I'm back to teaching in a remote area of New Mexico.

This Is My Idea of What a Book Report Should Be

Thirty years ago, I became an English teacher because I love to read and I love to share books and ideas. When someone next to me on the bus is reading, I want to see what they're reading, and I want to know what they think about it. If you invite me to your home, I’ll scope out your bookshelves. I want to share good books with people, and I want to share the meaning, ideas, and feelings that books convey.

I want to share books (and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media) that have impacted my life and made me think, laugh, and cry. I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite novels: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One-Sentence Plot Summary

This is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report. I'm going to reduce the plot summary to one sentence: A young girl grows up in the Deep South during the Depression learning about eccentric neighbors, racial prejudice, and the gray areas of morality—pretty much in that order.

A Still From the Film Adaptation of Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

A Still From the Film Adaptation of Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

My Inane Ramblings: Why I Love This Book

When I was in elementary school, we got to watch two movies every year. It was a big deal. We were ushered into the gym to sit on the floor facing a big screen pulled down over the stage. The lights dimmed, the reel-to-reel projector began clacking, the images began to flicker, and there we were—watching a movie at school. We saw Dumbo on the day before Christmas vacation and To Kill a Mockingbird on the last day of school. I loved both of them equally.

However, To Kill a Mockingbird stuck with me a while longer, and before I was out of sixth grade, I had read it several times. I must say, though, that I skimmed or skipped the parts of it I found boring or incomprehensible. As the years went on, I continued to read Mockingbird every few years and considered it one of my favorite books.

25 years ago, I got a job teaching eighth-grade English, and to my delight, one of the novels assigned each year was To Kill a Mockingbird. The kids sometimes called it How to Kill a Mockingbird or Tequila Mockingbird. They were always apprehensive at the beginning because the print was smaller and the words were larger than many of them were used to, although some of them had already read it. I always read the first chapter aloud, stopping frequently for clarification to get them started.

When the history of Boo Radley was explained, I asked the students if, during their childhoods, there had ever been a neighbor who was a bit strange—someone they were afraid of or perhaps someone they might even have tormented. At this point, the kids all had stories they wanted to tell.

Sometimes, we even had to continue the next day because so many were eager to tell their stories about their weird neighbors. However, the last couple of years that I taught the book, when I asked the same questions, the class would just stare at me blankly. It was the same when I asked about the games they played with their friends, exploring places in the neighborhood, or anything to do with pretending. Though I'm glad kids don't seem to be tormenting their reclusive neighbors, there just seems to be something missing from some of these children's lives.

Though I grew up in a middle-class community during the 50s and 60s, I had the same kind of childhood as Scout Finch, the narrator, did during the 1930s in the Deep South. My friends and I were largely unsupervised, and we had loads of unstructured time away from adults. We played "let's pretend" games frequently inspired by books. We lived in a place where we felt safe and were allowed to roam pretty freely. Adults were there if we needed them but had their own lives as we had ours. It was wonderful.

Though To Kill a Mockingbird is touted as a civil-rights novel, important in promoting racial equality, but I find it to be merely mediocre in that respect. Yeah, yeah, folks is folks, but the novel doesn't seem to promote the idea of trying to achieve equal rights, but rather just getting along and maintaining the status quo. To Kill a Mockingbird is masterful as a coming of age story, or bildungsroman. We see through Scout's eyes and follow her journey from innocence to experience. Yes, she's only ten at the end of the novel, but she's worked out some moral issues that many adults never come to grips with.

So I started out reading To Kill a Mockingbird in sixth grade, interested only in the Boo-Radley aspect. I taught the novel during the early 90s stressing the civil-rights aspect, and now I've come full circle—back to Boo. After all, what is prejudice, really? And what kind of prejudice most affects lives?

We think we know someone, but we don't. We think because someone is of a certain race, speaks a certain way, or wears certain clothing that we know them, but we don't. Atticus Finch, father of the narrator says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Well, I can't do that, but at least I can withhold judgment until I have some first-hand knowledge.

Since I'm rambling inanely, I'd like to share two interesting things that happened in my classroom while I was teaching Mockingbird. I taught this book in a very upper-class, very white school. It was a school tradition to act out the trial of Tom Robinson (the black man unjustly accused of rape) from the book. This had been done for many years, and the students knew it was coming as we got closer to the trial.

One year, we had only one black student, A.J., in the whole school, and he was in my first-period class. And I had a student, James, with a damaged and mostly useless arm, also in my first-period class. Yes, it was his left arm. (If you've read the book, you know how important that is.) My plan was to make James the judge, a very coveted part because he would get to sit behind the podium. I was going to have a private talk with A.J. and make him the prosecutor. Before I could execute my plan, James and A.J. got into an argument

"I'm gonna be Tom Robinson!"

"No, I'm gonna be Tom Robinson!"

"Why should you get to be Tom?" yelled A.J.

"Duh," yelled James, pointing to his arm. "Why should YOU get to be Tom?"

"Duh," yelled A.J., pointing to his arm.

So what would you do? I gave James the part of Tom Robinson and followed my original plan of making A.J. the prosecutor with some additional coaching. It worked out great, although both were still mad at each other because A.J. was such a good, convincing prosecutor. James took it personally.

The second incident involved a student named Jesse, who although very intelligent, could not read. I've met several people over the years who just aren't wired for reading, and Jesse was one of them. This was an inclusion class (special education and regular education students), and I was team-teaching with my good friend Pam, a special education teacher.

Jesse was having so many difficulties in another class, so Pam removed him from that class, and he was in our class twice in a row. It sounds like a strange thing to do, but it worked for Jesse, and he was happy in the situation and doing very well. His only problem was that he had to hear anything read aloud to the class twice, and he didn't like that.

One day, I had read aloud a whole chapter of Mockingbird. When the first class left, Jesse informed me that he was tired of hearing me read and that he would read the chapter to the next class. Knowing that he couldn't read at all, I tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. Pam and I decided to go with it.

Class began, and I announced that Joel would be reading today. I went and sat in the back of the room at my desk. When the kids read aloud, I knew the book so well, I could help them on a word without looking at it. I, after all, had read Mockingbird literally over 100 times by then.

I dreaded what would come next. Jesse began reading with expression, pronouncing every word correctly, obviously with great understanding of the material. He held the book open but never looked at it nor turned a page. As I listened in absolute amazement, I opened my book to follow along. Jesse's "reading" of the chapter was about 90% word perfect, after hearing it only once!

One student turned with a puzzled look; I caught his eye, smiled, and shrugged. He didn't pursue it. Nobody else noticed. At the end of class, Pam and I and many of the students complimented Jesse on his reading. I hope it was a good moment for him because he committed suicide several years later. Now I'm crying, so I guess I'll stop.

Some of My Favorite Passages from "To Kill a Mockingbird"

  • "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."
  • "I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year."
  • "There's a maniac lives there and he's dangerous... I was standing in my yard one day when his Mama come out yelling, 'He's killin' us all.' Turned out that Boo was sitting in the living room cutting up the paper for his scrapbook, and when his daddy come by, he reached over with his scissors, stabbed him in his leg, pulled them out, and went right on cutting the paper. They wanted to send him to an asylum, but his daddy said no Radley was going to any asylum. So they locked him up in the basement of the courthouse till he nearly died of the damp, and his daddy brought him back home. There he is to this day, sittin' over there with his scissors . . . Lord knows what he's doin' or thinkin'."
  • "Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."

Should You Watch the Movie?

Many critics feel that the movie is better than the book. It certainly captures the feel of the time and place. I cannot picture the characters any other way than the way they were portrayed in the movie, even though the description of Dill at least is very different in the book. The movie and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch won well-deserved Oscars. So yes, you should watch the movie.

© 2010 Lee A Barton

Comments

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on December 03, 2011:

It certainly is one of the greats! Thanks for stopping by, Zeus675.

Zeus675 on November 28, 2011:

I love the book. Its the best thing I've ever read.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on November 03, 2011:

Oh, I'm really starting to like you, gradeAmerican! Of course, the art of writing is partly about knowing the rules and knowing when and how to break them.

gradeAmerican on October 30, 2011:

A great book that became almost as great a movie. I KNOW that wasn't a complete sentence, Ms. English teacher!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 02, 2011:

Scout is so cute and feisty! She was a great role model for me at a time when girls were supposed to be quiet, timid, and passive. I'm really glad I was exposed at an early age to another way of being in the world.

Thank you for dropping by and commenting, ruffridyer!

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on June 01, 2011:

I watched to kill a mocking bird as a young boy and developed a big crush for scout.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on February 20, 2011:

Thank you so much for your kind words, Genna! It is also interesting to me that Harper Lee seemed to show no interest in writing another book. However, Mockingbird was enough, I think.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 20, 2011:

Very nice hub! "To Kill a Mockingbird" has always been a favorite of mine for many of the reasons you have stated here. I understand that this superb Pulitzer winner was Harper Lee’s only book. A rather hard act to follow, by any measure.

I was astonished and saddened to read about Joel. I think one of the happiest moments in his life was that day he “read” aloud. I suspect that you were a remarkable teacher; we need more of you in our schools today. :)

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 28, 2010:

You really are connected to southern Alabama, Ladybythelake55! It seems to me like a place that doesn't change drastically over time. My husband's family is also from that area. The way my mother-in-law describes her childhood, I'm pretty sure she's one of the Cunninghams!

Thank you for stopping by!

Ladybythelake55 from I was Born in Bethesda, Maryland and I live in Chicago,IL on July 27, 2010:

I know all about Monroeville, Alabama where To Kill A Mockingbird took place. My late grandmother, Anna H. Stanton and my late mother, Mattyle Colleen Wesson were buried at Popular Spring's Baptist Church in Uriah Monroe County, Alabama. We use to spend every summer down in Goodway, Monroe County, Alabama, in which case you have to go through Monroevile, Frisco City, and then Goodway to get to Goodway. The next biggest city is Atmore, Alabama where the state prison is. My Late Uncle used to work there.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 07, 2010:

I'll check in with you when I find it. As I recall, it was quite interesting

mysterylady 89 from Florida on July 06, 2010:

I would love to know the name of the biography of Capote -- not Tru, right? I have not thought about him or Harper Lee in many, many years. Please try to find out the name of the book. I'd love to read it!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 06, 2010:

Hi mysterylady! I was once in a position where I did a lot of observations--mostly it was wonderful, and I learned so much that helped my own teaching. However, a few observations were just so sad and frustrating. Trying to work with someone who has just plain missed the point and refuses to listen or accept help is a terrible experience.

I also read aloud and discussed with students the Bob Ewell incident. It's interesting that at the end Scout understands what actually happened and what to do about it (nothing), before the other characters, except the sheriff.

I once read quite a bit of Truman Capote but haven't for many years. Really did like his work and will probably reread some of it. I wish I could remember the name of the biography of Capote (not the one by his lover) that discussed incidents from his childhood, the "real" Boo Radley, Capote's role in the writing of Mockingbird, and Lee's role in the writing of In Cold Blood. I'll try to find it. You might enjoy it.

mysterylady 89 from Florida on July 05, 2010:

Lee B, I read on another hub that Harper Lee's sister said she would not write again because she could not do any better than her first novel, I just cannot believe that! I am glad you can share my dream.

One discouraging thing I saw about teaching the novel was when I did an observation of a colleague. It was obvious he did not know who killed Bob Ewell! Now that was a passage I read aloud to my students to make sure they knew what was happening!

Have you read any books by Truman Capote, who was probably Dill in the novel? They are delightful.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 05, 2010:

What a wonderful thought--Harper Lee continuing writing in secret! I never could believe that she didn't want to write more after publishing Mockingbird.

Thank you for your kind words. I never was a natural at teaching the way some people are, but I was at my best during the Mockingbird unit.

mysterylady 89 from Florida on July 05, 2010:

I also loved teaching TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to 10th graders. I enjoyed your description of the three students. Poor Joel!

I always hope that Harper Lee, in seclusion all these years, has felt compelled to continue writing and that after her death we will find hundreds of her manuscripts. Wouldn't that be a reader's delight?

You must have been an outstanding teacher!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 04, 2010:

Thank you for commenting, ericvonjed. Since I taught Mockingbird for so many years, thinking about it, for me, is inseparable from remembering my years in the classroom.

ericvonjed on July 03, 2010:

Loved the Hub, partly for the book report, but more especially for the insight into the world of being an English teacher.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 02, 2010:

Thank you, Dolores! The first chapter of Mockingbird is one of the most difficult for kids. Once they understand that one, everything else is downhill. I totally agree that every American should read this book.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on June 01, 2010:

Lee - I think that to stand there and read the 1st chapter of the book in front of the class is one of the best ideas I've ever heard (to encourage kids to read). That way, they become comfortable with the writing style and you've already hooked them into the story. A must read novel for every American.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 30, 2010:

Thank you so much for your comments, Pat! I do agree that those less overt forms of prejudice are really what the book is about. Mayella Ewell is a victim of this prejudice as much as Boo Radley. During the cross-examination when Atticus asks her about her life--about friends and activities--she doesn't know what he is talking about. She has been as isolated as Boo, maybe more so, because he once did have friends and a somewhat normal adolescence(if we believe neighborhood gossip).

It was interesting to see the changes in my students over the years that I taught the book. In 1988 many of the students had their own stories about neighbors, pranks, playing outside, and pretending games. By 2004 there were very few stories from students of this type, and very little enthusiasm about the topic. It does make me wonder!

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on May 30, 2010:

Pat writes: I first read "To Kill a Mockingbird" when I was in high school in the USA. I moved to England when I was a young adult, and have read it a few more times over the years.

I used to think the book was about achieving racial equality, but now I think that it is about a less overt form of racism. Possibly the part about accepting a strange white man (Boo) is more important.

It had not occurred to me that children today might not understand the concept of a strange/scary neighbout because their lives are so confined.

That's sad, and potentially dangerous.

One way and another, this is a very interesting hub. Thanks.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 30, 2010:

I so agree, MPG Narratives!

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on May 29, 2010:

Yes Lee isn't it interesting that Harper Lee wrote without reservation about what the public would perceive, imagine being able to write just for the sake of it, not for profit or otherwise. Probably why its a great book.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 28, 2010:

One of the many reasons I love Mockingbird is that Harper Lee, in my opinion, wrote it exactly as she wished with digressions and archaic vocabulary. It seems to me that she gave no thought to whether it would be well received by the public. I admire that!

As for Joel having a form of autism or Aspergers--I never did see his diagnostic testing, but he really didn't present the way I had seen other students on that spectrum, although there were several other examples of phenomenal concentration and feats of memory. So really I just don't know!

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on May 28, 2010:

I read Mockingbird as part of a Bookclub I am part of, and like you, I skipped parts I thought were irrelevant and some that were a little disturbing, but the book has remained in my best reads list. As for Joel being Autistic, we had this same discussion at a bookclub meeting and agreed he did have some form of the condition. Great hub Lee.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 24, 2010:

Glad to see you here, habee! You know, I think everyone who's read the book or seen the movie likes it, and for so many it is a favorite. There's something so universal about this particular coming of age novel!

Holle Abee from Georgia on May 24, 2010:

One of my all time favorite novels and movies!!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 10, 2010:

I so agree with your comments, Gigi. I was really lucky to be able to teach this book!

Gigi2 from UK on May 10, 2010:

To Kill A Mockingbird, is in my opinion life changing. I read it and was transformed by the wisdom, quiet strength and pure love and respect of Aticus Finch. When he says to his young daughter, Scout,

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it", something fell into place, as a single mum.

Trying to live by this rule would transform much hatred in our society. Sadly people don't think like this, but I am proud to say my children do.

This should be compulsive reading for every child.

The strength of character Aticus has instilled in Scout is evident when she says "I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year". It made me smile and reinforced my determination to produce independent, wise children. But knowing they would need me more, the day innocence was gone.

I also loved the film, Gregory Peck and all the actors, I believe, do the story credit.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 28, 2010:

Oh yeah, they do!

Brittany Rowland from Woodstock, GA on April 28, 2010:

I know how it is trying to keep a straight face--I was an English sub for a while and kids, especially 15-year-old boys, find ways to turn everything into a sexual innuendo!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 27, 2010:

Though I tried to maintain a "teachery," stern face when I heard "Tequila Mockingbird," I just thought it was a hoot. Kids sure are creative! When I get more time, I'll continue my reviews. Thanks for commenting!

Brittany Rowland from Woodstock, GA on April 27, 2010:

No problem! I really liked how you brought in your own classroom experiences teaching the novel. I've never heard "Tequila Mockingbird" before :-)

And the stories of the individual students, especially Joel, were really touching (and heartbreaking).

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 25, 2010:

Thank you for stopping by, PS! It's really been gratifying for me to find out how many other people have loved this book.

Brittany Rowland from Woodstock, GA on April 25, 2010:

One of my favorite books! Great summary and analysis, Lee--thanks for sharing!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 18, 2010:

Thank you so much, Peggy. It's nice to know that someone had a similar type of childhood.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 18, 2010:

We grew up pretty much the same with lots of time for daydreaming, playing unsupervised with the feeling of safety, etc. I loved reading and don't remember if this was an assigned book in school or just one that I read for pleasure. You resurrected the memories of the book but even more than that, I enjoyed what you wrote about your experiences with the students, etc. So very sad about Joel and his short time spent in this life. You give book reports a whole new meaning! Thanks!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 16, 2010:

Thank you for the comment, AdamGee. Sometimes I wonder if I'm just an old grump with my, "Kids these days..." rants.

AdamGee on March 15, 2010:

I love this book, too. I've read it at least 4 times, and I've enjoyed it differently each time. I can really identify with Scout's innocence, and as the book goes on, her gradual loss of innocence. I've never seen the movie, because I like the way I picture the characters and the scenes and I don't want it to change.

As for kids playing outside, I can see what you mean. I am 26, and when I was little the neighborhood kids played together and ran all over. But I can see this is not the case anymore. People are fearful of strangers, and would rather have their kids stay inside and play video games than risk danger. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, and ulimately no one can tell anyone else how to raise their kids. Really, I think the media is to blame, because they profit off of scaring people into staying into their homes.

Thanks for another very interesting article, Lee!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 14, 2010:

Thank you for coming by, Duchess! There's always been a generation gap problem in communicating about Mockingbird. For example, when I told students that I remember the doctor coming to my house when I was sick, as happens in the story, they are simply amazed. However, it seems it's only been in the past few years that I couldn't get a connection talking about things like neighbors and childhood games. It seems to me that children don't play outside as much anymore, and their lives are much more supervised and scheduled than mine ever was.

Duchess OBlunt on March 14, 2010:

Lee, I am happy to have found your hubs (through your fan mail). This was a great article. You mention that children don't seem to know what it means to get to know their neighbors. It's so true. And very sad.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 13, 2010:

I know that autism has a whole range of symptoms--so I'm gonna back up and say that it's possible Joel was somewhere on that spectrum. However, my gut and experiences say no. I've got to admit, though, I never knew what the diagnostic testing said about him.

De Greek from UK on March 13, 2010:

Autism comes in various shapes and forms. Very often the symptoms are nowhere near the familiar symptoms of the extreme cases. To me he sounds like a classic case, but if you say that he was tested by experts, who am I to doubt them ? And when I hear about a child's difficult home life, I feel a wrenching in my heart

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 13, 2010:

Yes, I'm sure it was. Perhaps being very intelligent as he was actually made it even worse. And he had a difficult, complex home life.

De Greek from UK on March 13, 2010:

Then if he was not autistic, the thought of that child's pain is unbearable...

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 12, 2010:

Thank you so much, De Greek, for your kind words. No need to feel ashamed! Mockingbird exposes such an ugly part of American history, I hope you don't think less of us when you do read it. I would be very interested to hear what you think of it since you will come at from such a different perspective.

Actually, I don't believe Joel was autistic which makes his feats of memory all that more amazing. The event I related here was just one of many. Joel had covered his inability to read for so long that he had learned to compensate with an intense concentration. I now feel quite honored that he considered Mockingbird worthy of that kind of effort.

De Greek from UK on March 12, 2010:

You have made me smile with Josh and A.J., you have made me cry with your story about Joel and you have made me ashamed that of the thousands of books I have read in my lifetime, I have not yet read this one. Thank you for a wonderfully human story…

But did no one realize that Joel was autistic?

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 08, 2010:

Thank you, Eric! Just checked our your profile and Chapter 1. Great idea! Hope you get some hubs started too. It's a lot of fun and a great learning experience.

Eric Calderwood from USA on March 08, 2010:

A very enjoyable hub about a book that I love.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 07, 2010:

Cheeky Girl, you are bending my brain at bit, but that's a good thing at my age! Thank you so much for stopping by; I hold a compliment from you in high esteem. I'm enjoying interacting on hub pages so much! I feel like I'm meeting my tribe.

Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on March 07, 2010:

Perception and reality are thought of as two different places. I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and discovered (as a kid) that they are just 2 states of mind, which can occupy the same place. A very annoying thing for a child to find out, but this and a million other things make this one of the best books in the fine Lexicon of American Literature. I am delighted to see your hub (a la follow link from you - Thanks for this!) and glad to reply and comment on it. I look forward to reading your many hubs and having lots of followers and fans, which now includes me too! Cheers! : )