The recent death of Harper Lee reminded me of an almost forgotten failure—one to which I hadn’t given much thought recently. (There are always new ones fighting for supremacy.)
I spent most of my teaching career in the good company of high school juniors and seniors—we had an English faculty basically locked in to its favorites and strengths, and I was no different. Then one year in the early nineties I was called upon to teach a sophomore class—new literature, new vocabulary, new reading lists. I looked forward to it—change isn’t always good but teaching a new class always energized me.
The group was considered academic, which at the time meant short of high-achieving but not by much. College bound. Motivated. Mature…at least as mature as fifteen-year-olds can be. We plowed through the curriculum—memory (or lack thereof) prevents my remembering everything we learned, but the Odyssey comes to mind, as does Romeo and Juliet, and the original basis for Hitchcock’s Birds—a story by DuMaurier. But what does stand out clearly is the month or so we spent on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Don’t laugh—I know people finish that book in a day. But we were writing compositions and learning vocabulary and mastering (or dabbling in) grammar and usage at the time. We didn’t rush—we were having a fairly good time, this despite the fact that there could not have been many in the class unaware of how the novel would end.
Now some twenty years later I have to confess—I didn’t do as good a job with that novel as I should have. I look back now and find countless writing prompts and discussion topics that I let slip by, all because I came at it wrong: I treated To Kill a Mockingbird like a quaint history lesson of how things used to be but weren’t any longer. I realize now that the timelessness of the novel emanates from its connection to today—today in 1960; today in 1992; today in 2016. Individual integrity and respect have not changed and Harper Lee knew that.
And so, after too long a delay, my apology to those sophomores (now, no doubt, meandering through their thirties with sophomores of their own) who probably know now from experience what they could have—and should have—learned from me.
Addendum: A few years ago my wife and I saw a stage adaptation of this novel in Hartford. While we waited for the curtain go up, we heard another audience member talking on his cell, telling someone at the other end that he was waiting to see “How to Kill a Mockingbird.” I can only imagine the depths of his disappointment when, two hours later, when he still didn’t know how.