'Mockingbird' remains must-read for students

'Mockingbird' remains must-read for students

In a recent scroll through Facebook, a post from a former student caught my attention. The post includes a year-old video showing a white male, who was wanted in connection to a triple homicide, running from the police. The initial search and apprehension, by all media accounts, lasted several hours and forced seven local schools to go on lockdown. Never one to take posts “as is,” I verified the story with four different news outlets, one being USA Today.

Setting aside the current political unrest between various groups, my heart was broken by the comment accompanying the video posted by my former student, an African American female: “Someone, please help me make sense of this.” She posted the video alongside various examples of African American suspects being treated very differently than this white murderer by police.

“Help. Me. Make. Sense. Of. This,” she pleads.

Teachers, clergy, poets, medical professionals, scientists and, most importantly, parents ultimately have one unifying job: to help people make sense of a too often terrifying world. Sometimes, the power of literature can guide our conversations, helping us shine a light on answers we often cannot find ourselves.

Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, has been a must-read for many, many generations of school-bound teenagers. Required reading across the country, “Mockingbird” tells the story of young Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, growing up in Maycomb, Alabama with an aging lawyer for a father, an annoying brother and an African American housekeeper who has been given liberty to discipline Scout (leading to some of the best dialogue/scenes in the book).

Along the way Scout experiences bullies, a mysterious phantom in Boo Radley and love with her first crush in Charles Baker Harris, all serving as small seeds being planted in her maturity. The real growth, however, comes as Lee slowly builds to the central viewpoint of her book: social unrest and racism being viewed through the eyes of a young girl who is learning what it means to be empathetic.

Early in the book, Scout’s father, Atticus, gives her one of his many life lessons throughout the novel: “First of all, if you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Scout uses this lesson to understand a school-age friend with whom she often fights at school, the world’s most annoying cousin who is responsible for her getting a spanking from her uncle, and, before a trial even takes place, an angry white mob convinced vigilantism is the best way to achieve racial justice.

Scout uses this lesson not to accept their beliefs or support their causes but to better understand their motives and, in the case of the mob, force them to look within themselves, saving her father’s life and Tom Robinson’s in the process.

I will argue until my dying breath that this advice is not an oversimplification to making sense of the world. Somewhere along the way, we have lost our ability to be empathetic to the disenfranchised. Out of entrenched beliefs and, to some extent, pure laziness, many are not really listening to why protests are occurring or why civil unrest dominates the nightly news or why we have students, seven years removed from high school, calling out for help on social media.

Maybe there are people over the age of 18 who have yet to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and if that is you, there has never been a more important time to do so.

Sixty years later I think “To Kill a Mockingbird” still serves as a glorious starting point to begin the conversation of unrest and social inequity, but I have learned over the years, in talking with Black friends and Black students, it must serve as a companion piece to other literary voices. If we are truly going to follow Atticus’ advice and crawl around in someone else’s skin, that skin must be a different color.

It is why, several years ago, I picked up Jason Reynolds’ amazing “Track” series (which I highly recommend for those with an adolescent at home) or, more recently, S.A. Cosby’s excellent, familial character study in “Blacktop Wasteland” and James McBride’s hilarious yet heartbreaking “Deacon King Kong” (you will never read or hear a more hilarious chapter on government cheese than in McBride’s poetic voice). These books provide a glimpse of worlds I will never inhabit but help me, with every flip of a page, understand someone else’s “skin” just a bit more.

So where does change and action and empathy begin? I side with Atticus by first attempting to understand lives I have never experienced. The reality is, regardless of what side of the fence your political leanings lie, not until we are genuinely ready to do that will the vitriol stop, and all I can promise that former student is that we are going to try to make sense of things together.

Brett Hiner is in his 24th year of teaching English/language arts at Wooster High School, where he also serves as the yearbook advisor and Drama Club advisor/director. He can be emailed at workinprogressWWN@gmail.com.

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