"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Report
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.
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 . 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. To Kill a Mockingbird
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
Will you read this book?
© 2010 Lee Barton