What Harper Lee Means to Me

to kill a mockingbird photo
Photo by Bruna Ferrara;

I wonder if I would be an English teacher if not for To Kill a Mockingbird. I first encountered the film when I was in 6th grade, and my teachers showed it to us as part of a reward—I forget exactly for what. Two years later, I found a paperback copy of the book in my English teacher’s classroom. She used to have one of those spinning book racks like you see sometimes in the library or in some bookstores. I took the book off the rack and probably read the blurbs on the cover. I don’t remember. I do remember opening it up to the first page and reading

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The passage grabbed me. I turned to see Mrs. Hoy standing next to me, excited look on her face, rocking back and forth on her heels as usual. “Do you want to borrow that book?” She asked me this question a bit too eagerly, and it made me suspicious, so I put the book back and said, “No.”

Actually, I am not totally sure that I put the book on Mrs. Hoy’s rack together with the film I had seen two years before.

Three years later, I was in Mrs. Keener’s American literature class. I was a junior. In all of high school, I can’t recall having liked anything I read for English class up to that point. I don’t actually remember reading anything in English class in tenth grade at all. I remember sitting at my desk doing grammar exercises out of Warriner’s while my teacher sat at hers. It was a miserable class. Until I landed in Mrs. Keener’s class, I hated English class for the most part. I hadn’t really had a good English teacher since middle school. I loved to read, and I loved to write. Something is wrong when a student who loves to read and write can’t enjoy English.

Mrs. Keener assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it might have been the first novel I read in her class. I had moved to Georgia in February, and the class was in the middle of a research paper. I needed to come up with a topic quickly, and I think we read To Kill a Mockingbird after finishing the research paper, but I admit I don’t recall for certain. We were assigned a number of pages to read each night. I remember reading ahead. I remember being well ahead of where I was required to be. Mrs. Keener opened all our classes with journaling and allowed us to read silently in class. For me, these were the best times of the day. I loved her class, and I loved her. In some ways, I think that it started, really, with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so, when I entered college, after having entertained the idea of being a French teacher (I always knew I wanted to teach, but what I wanted to teach took me longer to figure out), I wanted to be like Mrs. Keener. I wanted to teach English. The first novel I taught my students in my first year of teaching was To Kill a Mockingbird. The school had no novel sets at all, and when I asked my department chair, she said I could order them. I taught the book many times since.

Nowadays, it has sort of moved down into the middle school, and I think it is probably fine for middle schoolers. Many of my current students read it in middle school and remember it fondly. When we were talking today about Harper Lee’s death, I shared with them how much I disliked English class until Mrs. Keener and this book. In so many ways, I have Mrs. Keener to thank for the fact that I am an English teacher. We have remained friends since I graduated, and she was my own department chair for a while. I owe her a real debt of gratitude because she has always advocated for me and supported me. I know I owe many of my teaching jobs to her recommendation. She was the one who finally put that book in my hand and made me love English class, and I always think of her whenever I read or teach anything she taught me in high school. I wonder sometimes if I don’t also owe Harper Lee a debt of gratitude  because as much as I wanted to be Mrs. Keener, I also wanted to put books like that in the hands of my students, and maybe they could feel the way I felt when I read it. Watching kids fall in love with a book is one of the best things about my job. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you.

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