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Mockingbird

I think I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time as a Rochester John Marshall 10th grader sometime during the 1986-87 school year. My most prominent memory of the academic experience is writing five-paragraph essays about the book for three buddies who got higher grades on the assignment (all A-minuses) than I got (solid, respectable B). I also remember watching our teacher, the white, perpetually flustered Ms. Green, have no idea what to do when Scott, the only black kid in that sophomore English section, reacted with outrage after the first time she shakily uttered the word “nigger” while reading an excerpt aloud to us.

The book is seldom far from my conscious thoughts. Partially because it’s culturally omnipresent. It’s tough to have a college degree, love reading, work in education, watch public television, or just be alive and engaged in certain aspects of dominant Baby Boomer and Generation-X zeitgeist without seeing, hearing about, or discussing the book (or the movie version of it) fairly frequently. I’m also sure I would think about it fairly often even if it weren’t ubiquitous. I don’t recall much about my actual experience of reading it that first time. I do know I immediately revered the story and many of its characters. I still do. And I’ve consciously thought about it more than usual for the past year or so, after Duluth Public Schools (Independent School District 709) administrators announced the book would be removed from ninth-graders’ English reading list. A lot of people in Duluth and a lot of other places have had a lot things to say about that decision.

Here’s my understanding of the basic situation and some fundamental responses to it:

The former 709 curriculum director decided to remove Mockingbird largely if not exclusively because of concerns expressed over a few years by teachers, parents, students, and community members. Those folks were and are troubled by damage done to non-white kids who feel isolated or dismissed, among a white majority, by the book’s story and language. The concerned folks have also said that the book, despite its commonly accepted status as a consciousness-raising depiction of why racism and other forms of hypocritical bias are bad, actually enforces dominant cultural narratives that prop up “respectable” white folks at the expense of everyone who’s neither white nor fits dominant culture’s definition of respectable.

It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of the gist.

According to a lot of people in favor of the change, To Kill A Mockingbird is beautifully written, a lot of people revere it, it’s not the only book that can do what teachers say they want it to do, and it’s been time for a book that afflicts the comfortable as much as it does the already afflicted. They also say that while the book might raise awareness of racism and other forms of hypocritical bias among people who don’t generally have to notice them, it doesn’t help those same folks notice subtle bigotry a lot of people deal with every day. Some people in favor of the change say it’s actually tougher for white folks who build consciousness about race-based bigotry through Mockingbird to notice it in real life because everyday racial bigotry is usually less dramatic and obvious than it is in the book, and it comes just as often from “good” white people like the Finches as it does from “bad” white people like the Ewells. We don’t, some people of this perspective say, need more white folks telling racism stories that let white readers stay comfortable by choosing to identify with the obvious white hero while distancing themselves from what they might share with the obvious white villains. The story, some of these folks say, uses Tom Robinson’s plight, and the way the Ewells and white townspeople treat Tom, to help white readers find absolution in not being vicious trash like the Ewells or hypocrites like the white people who judge and kill Tom. It’s easy to read To Kill a Mockingbird and come away believing, “Oh my. Racism is so sad. I’m glad I’m not a racist.”

According to a lot of folks opposed to the change, To Kill a Mockingbird is beautifully written, a lot of people revere it, it’s part of our shared culture, and that should be enough to keep it in the curriculum. But perhaps more important than the book’s monumental status in our shared culture, a lot of people grieving the book’s curriculum absence say, is its power to foster important conversations and raise important consciousness among young kids. It’s the best possible book for doing what teachers have always used it to do, which is help adolescents start learning the truth about difficult topics such as racism, poverty, societal hypocrisy, and sexual abuse. No other book, they say, can do what Mockingbird does in the way it does it, and banning it just because of a few N-words is a huge mistake. That word is thrown around in the rap songs and movies and TV shows kids are consuming all the time these days. When it’s used in the book it’s to show that the people using it are obviously despicable. If we banned every book that includes challenging topics or might offend some people, some folks who want to keep the book say, we’d have to ban all literature. There didn’t used to be a problem with people being offended by certain words or topics. No one, some people who fought the change say, complained about That Word or anything else when they read the book in school. Not even the black kids. No one ever heard those kids say they felt uncomfortable. It’s also very possible, say some folks opposed to the change, that using a different book will open opportunities for other special-interest groups to say they’re offended by something. Then we’d have to ban that book. Pretty soon there won’t be any books we’re allowed to use because we’d have to protect everyone from feeling offended. Plus, some folks say, we all know and love To Kill a Mockingbird. Black people should love it because it shows racism is wrong. It’s a classic for a reason. If we don’t use it black kids might feel like someone thought their experiences shouldn’t be represented, and if we use a non-fiction book about racism, white kids could feel put on the spot.

Those descriptions probably leave out some important ideas and distort others.

When I was in high school, Scott was the closest to close among a sparse handful of black friends and acquaintances I spent time with. John Marshall was a grades 10-12 school with about 550 kids per class. I recycled my yearbooks a while ago, but fading memories of those photo lineups and of daily JM life tell me 500 (+/-) of those kids in each class were what most folks would define as “white,” and among the rest were a mix of kids of cultures, ethnicities, skin colors, and identities who most folks would define as something other than whatever white is. A few black kids. Some Hispanic, Chicanx, and Latinx kids. Probably more kids than a lot of folks might expect from Hmong families that had emigrated, many after spending time in refugee camps, from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Some Indian and Pakistani kids. A very small number, as far as I know, of Native American kids. Single digits of kids from “other” backgrounds. The number and variety of non-white kids might have been higher at JM than it was at that time in most other Minnesota high schools outside Minneapolis and St. Paul and some of the Metro suburbs. Mayo Clinic and IBM’s huge campus drew and still draw families from all over the world. I’d wager that a few specific square blocks of Rochester’s downtown, at the center of Mayo’s campus, comprises the most culturally diverse and sophisticated location in Minnesota on any given day.

Scott and I sat the bench on the sophomore basketball team together. We occasionally hit parties on weekends and frequently kidded around during passing time. A few of our teammates and other guys we hung out with were in the same 10th-grade English class. At lunch one day Scott said to some of us, “Hey should I act super pissed off every time someone says the word ‘nigger’ when Green reads out loud in class?” We all thought it was a hilarious idea and strongly encouraged him. He followed through. The first time Ms. Green read the word out loud he yelled, “HEY! What’s going on here?! This is offensive!” Those of us in on the joke couldn’t stop laughing. I can’t remember how our classmates reacted. Ms. Green seemed genuinely concerned. I don’t remember what she said or whether she changed anything about how we were approaching the book. I do remember her stricken facial expression in that moment.

I wish we had treated Ms. Green kindly. She was one of a few junior high and high school teachers I remember whose personalities and other characteristics made them easy marks for kids who seemed to seek opportunities for viciously exploiting vulnerabilities among anyone of any age or station. I wasn’t a sadistic kid, but I have my own amends to make for being intentionally and unintentionally cruel as far back as elementary school. I did things I was raised and taught not to do. All during school (and into my late 30s, if I’m being honest), I lacked the courage, intelligence, or whatever else it would have taken to be who I intended to be, and to challenge peers who were acting like assholes. I make those amends directly when I can. Most of the time I can’t. At least not directly. So I confess and try to live in a way I won’t regret 30 years from now.

While shoveling the front walk a few days ago I had a set of sensations I really had no idea what to do with — I just stood still and stared at the snow in the yard for a few unsteady moments, trying to avoid physically and emotionally collapsing — when my mind drifted into pondering what life must have been like for Robert Alden, who taught English and reading classes at John Adams Junior High when I was there for grades 7-9 from fall 1983 until spring 1986. Mr. Alden limped severely on both legs, which were different lengths and not straight. One of his arms was shorter and smaller than the other, and his hands bent at angles that made handling books and papers seem difficult. His speech wasn’t always clear. He wore a shirt and tie every day. His hair was kind of messy. He was always well-prepared for class and seemed a moment away from exploding. We never saw him explode.

I could tell you the name of the kid who, when we were eighth graders, nicknamed Mr. Alden “Critter,” used that slur frequently and got other kids to do it, and conned an unwitting DJ to dedicate “We are the World” to a non-existent student group called “U.S.A. for Alden” during a Friday night mixer in the school cafeteria. While trying to hold myself together on the sidewalk the other day, I thought about Mr. Alden getting up, heading to school, doing his job, and dealing with unspeakable shit every day. I had him as a teacher. I don’t remember ever actively participating in any of the stuff my classmates did and said to him. I also don’t remember telling them not to do it or going out of my way to show him kindness. Maybe that apathy is a form of sadism. What isn’t sadistic about watching someone get abused and choosing not to stand up with them or against their abusers?

I will always spend way too much time wishing I could talk to the boys I used to be. They felt so terrified and angry and sad. Those feelings manifested externally in biting sarcasm and clueless, clumsy apathy. Internally they produced what I now understand to be anxiety and depression. Back then I felt it all as deep sorrow, rage, and confusion. I never knew what to do about it other than read books and listen to music. They — those former versions of me — went along with a lot of things they knew were wrong and didn’t have the courage to fight against. Part of what I’d like to let that 14-year-old in Mr. Alden’s class know is that he has more capacity for toughness than he realizes, and that following his conscience will feel easier and more empowering the more he does it.

You know what? Come to think about it, it’s possible one of us white boys told Scott he should do what he did in Ms. Green’s class. “Hey you know what would be super funny? Every time that word comes up, act like you’re really mad! Green won’t know what to do!” My memory of Scott suggests he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t really want to. He never came off as timid. He always seemed steady and confident and comfortable with himself. Not aggressive. Also not a pushover. I don’t think he would have had trouble telling us, even if a bunch of us were pressuring him hard, to kiss his ass and shut up. My 48-year-old perspective also tells me it’s very possible he went along with the prank not because he thought it would be as funny as we said it would be, but because he wanted to make us laugh. Or maybe — whether he was conscious of it or not — going along with our idea was a relatively comfortable and subversive way for him to express sincere discomfort, anger, confusion, or whatever else about the book, the word, our ignorance of his general daily experience and how it differed from ours, and other sensations. Maybe we 15-and-16-year-old white boys just further complicated a situation that was already more complex for our black peer than most of us will ever comprehend.

No white guy suggested another of us as the person to act mad about the word. Neither did Scott. I don’t know what any of us white guys would have said if Scott had told us he really didn’t feel comfortable with the “joke” we were proposing. Maybe one or two of us would have really heard him and got it. I doubt it.

I see that classroom prank and a lot of other things, including To Kill a Mockingbird, much differently from how I used to see them. I love the book. It’s not my favorite, but I revere it and I wish I would have tried to enact a version of Atticus Finch’s decent, subversive courage much earlier than I decided to. I also try to be clear-eyed about what I see as the book’s power to reinforce problems it’s often intended to help white kids become more aware of and help kids of color have to deal with less frequently. Stories in which white people supposedly do the right thing supposedly on behalf of black people aren’t the only or most effective ones for helping young people in Duluth challenge their own perspectives, build the courage required to defend each other, and begin to understand experiences other than their own.

I can think of many ways to teach Mockingbird that combine exploration of its beauty and its weaknesses — that name its effectiveness for helping some people start learning to empathize while challenging its supposed status as a monument to anti-bigotry. I’m not sure how many people who love the book would want to teach it that way. A lot of teachers, especially those of us who try to use art to teach about topics that challenge students’ senses of themselves and the world, keep ourselves safe from the same vulnerability we ask students to confront. We feel comfortable forcing students into destabilizing experiences without being willing to bring them upon ourselves or struggle and grow through those experiences with students. I partially get it. I know how vicious kids can be at any sign of adult vulnerability. I was in Mr. Alden’s and Ms. Green’s classes. And maybe my rarefied ivory-tower perspective leaves me ignorant to what middle school and high school teachers can do. (I look out from the basement of that tower, by the way.) But maybe I also have very clear, accurate memories of what it was like, even amid the throes of deep adolescent confusion, to realize I was being asked to do things my teachers and and adults in general didn’t seem willing to do.

I have great affection for To Kill a Mockingbird and I support removing it from Duluth’s ninth-grade curriculum. I agree with shifting attention away from a story that too often comforts readers it should disrupt, and onto stories from folks whose perspectives can provide that disruption.

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