“I’m not understanding really, what the big controversy is.”—Biloxi School District Supt. Arthur McMillan.
Well, let me educate a superintendent of education.
In 1960, a very nice, quintessentially Southern lady named Harper Lee published what I believe to be one of the finest novels ever written about anything, and the finest novel ever written about the early 20th Century South. After her editor nixed two other would-be titles, they both settled upon “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It is a masterpiece. I have read it more than 20 times.
It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Two years later, it was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.
It won the Academy Award for “Best Motion Picture.” I have seen it more times than I can count.
Last week some knuckleheads within the administration of the Biloxi School District pulled it from the eighth grade curriculum.
This, they did, according to a spokesman for the school district’s board, because, “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”
And that, Mr. School Board Spokesman, is unadulterated nonsense.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was written to make people feel uncomfortable, you twit. And you cannot “teach the same lesson with other books,” because there is no other book that teaches the lessons to be learned from “To Kill a Mockingbird” with the same eloquence and power and painfully compelling honesty as does it.
That’s why it is universally recognized as the work of literary treasure that it is.
Yes, the book has “the N word” in it. And guess what? The “N word,” unfortunate as we might now consider it to be, was used just a whole lot in the 1930s South and thereafter, both in the fictional Alabama town where it is set and in the real Biloxi, Mississippi.
The “N word” was emblematic of the injustice, racial inequity, social ills and ignorance that Harper Lee forced all the rest of America to look at, up close and personal, through the eyes of her childhood and the voice of her child narrator. And the rest of America winced, and wanted to look away but could not because of the righteousness of this classic work’s prose.
Yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird” makes you feel uncomfortable. It made this entire nation feel uncomfortable, and thank God, for it.
“Atticus was right,” the semi-autobiographical Miss Lee wrote of her semi-autobiographical father. “One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Do we suddenly think that the eighth grade students in Biloxi no longer need to learn that lesson? Every kid in every school district in every state in this union of ours needs to learn that lesson, and as is made more painfully obvious every day, so do one whole hell of a lot of their parents and grandparents.
A black man wrongfully charged with raping a white woman and the subsequent miscarriage of justice vested upon him for no other reason than his race? Do you think that message might have just a little bit of relevance today?
That makes us “uncomfortable,” I will grant you, but as much as we would like to think of such in terms of “another time,” we cannot with any semblance of honesty when we read the headlines of today.
And what about courage? What about simply doing the right thing even when you know there is nothing in it for you? Think that might be something our children need to read about? Is that a life lesson we would want them to learn?
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch (consistently voted in polls as peoples’ most admired fictional character) tells his little girl: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Atticus Finch tells his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, because that mockingbird exists solely to bring us beauty and joy in our lives. And through the words of its author, woven into the pages of this most marvelous book, that mockingbird becomes metaphor for other things, other people in the lives of its characters and hopefully in the lives of those who read about them.
All of this, then to say to Mr. McMillan and his staff: Don’t stop teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Don’t deny the lessons to be found within it for a generation of school children. Because that is educational malpractice.
And as Atticus Finch’s very perceptive daughter says to him, “Well, it’d be sort of like shooting a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.