Not teaching Mockingbird won’t help our students
Once again, a school board has proposed that teachers tread carefully if they choose to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. This, in 2018, not 1958.
The Peel District school board recently issued a memo some are describing as a veiled threat that teachers will not be supported should they choose to teach the Harper Lee Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Apparently the decision is based on complaints from the school community. Was it a concerted group effort or the voice of one? Increasingly we are subjected to “protests” where one offended person’s sensibility overrides the common sense and appreciation of thousands if not millions.
Critics have described the novel as harmful, violent and oppressive to black students. Harmful? Violent? Oppressive? Sounds like Shakespeare to me. Where’s the rallying cry to ban the Bard’s works?
Some have criticized Lee’s novel for portraying Atticus Finch as a white knight for black victims during the Jim Crow era. This is partially true, but what makes Atticus’s role important is that, he, as a white man in the deeply segregationist south of the 1930s, is willing to do something — defend a black man accused of raping a white woman — when no other white person in the town is willing to do anything. He makes a total commitment for a cause he knows he’ll lose, and says as much presciently to his daughter, Scout. She asks, “Atticus, are we going to win it?” and he replies, “No, honey.”
As a teacher, I have had my own experiences with the novel.
During a parent-teacher interview, a black couple asked if I intended to teach the novel to their daughter. They told me I had a duty to teach the novel. They considered it a key piece of literature on many levels.
Conversely, in 1998, a white couple asked for a parent-teacher interview after class, an unusual request since their daughter was a stellar student. After our pleasantries, they asked if To Kill a Mockingbird was on the curriculum. Yes, I confirmed. They promptly ordered that once the novel was introduced their daughter was to be removed from the classroom. She would not be exposed to a narrative with miscegenation. That was 1998, not 1958. For two months, she reported to the library where she worked on menial material that didn’t challenge her.
Of all the works I taught during my teaching career, To Kill a Mockingbird undoubtedly resonated the most with students at any grade level. This was made evident to me early in my career. When the jury returns with its guilty verdict against Tom Robinson, one of the boys in class yelled, “This is bull----!”
I couldn’t in all good conscience lecture him about his vocabulary since he’d been caught up in the emotional moment. And then I learned he and his peers didn’t know or understand how ingrained the Jim Crow system of racial segregation was in the United States, the country with a national anthem that concludes with “and the home of the brave” but which could be the mondegreen “and the home of the slave.” I made the decision that before we studied the novel again, I would convert my English class to a modern history class and the students would spend approximately one month learning about the laws of Jim Crow so that they could handle that verdict.
What has also been lost with the novel’s ongoing controversy is that it’s such a fine example of literary fiction, an appreciation that should be anchored in all English studies classrooms. It’s beautifully written, unlike so much modern literature that is basic storytelling.
It’s difficult to figure things out in 2018, when a genteel Southern woman’s honoured novel is under constant attack. Let’s think again.