Today I am going to start teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th grade English class. I am glad the New York City Department of Education and my school, specifically, have not yet said that this is a banned book. YET. Over the years, this novel has been the subject of debate about its racial insensitivity due to the language used in the novel. Even before cancel culture came out and everything became offensive, I always started the novel with the explanation that, in my opinion, Harper Lee was not racist, but she used the jargon that people in the United States South would use.
In my opinion, it is one of the greatest novels off all time. I enjoyed it as a teenager and fell in love with tomboy Scout. I also regard Atticus Finch as one of the greatest characters in literature. The American Film Institute must agree with me because they named Atticus the #1 hero in films, beating out Han Solo, Indiana Jones and James Bond! I often hear myself repeating his advice: Do not judge a person until you have walked in their shoes. I also truly enjoyed his parenting style of never showing your cards. The children think they have gotten away with something and months later Atticus drops the bomb that he knew all along. Scout is mystified by his action.
The thing that is so funny is the parents are complaining about this novel and saying it is offensive and insensitive. These are the same parents who probably have never checked their children’s phone or have any idea what their children are doing or saying on social media. I think many of the parents would be offended by what they or their teens do or view on social media.
Another thing that has come up is the idea of feeling uncomfortable. This idea came up during Zoom sessions with my students. They and their parents first told me they could not turn on their camera because they were uncomfortable. The first excuse was they did not want to show their homes. I said you can change your background to learn from any place in the world. The next excuse then became that they do not feel comfortable. I truly believe and have spoken to many adolescent experts that feeling uncomfortable can be a positive experience. We should teach them how to overcome the feelings and not simply ignore them. I felt uncomfortable when Sister Jean scolded me in the 6th grade for not behaving properly and I strove to not feel that way again in her class, so I behaved.
So, for the next month or so, I will truly enjoy coming to class and reading and discussing my favorite novel to teach. Every year I have students inform me they have never read an entire book and enjoyed it as much as this novel, and I expect this year to be the same. Long live Harper Lee.
By Beth Hanning