Not teach­ing Mock­ing­bird won’t help our stu­dents

Simcoe Reformer - Times-Reformer - - OPINION - Lu­ciano Di­Nardo is a re­tired English teacher who taught To Kill a Mock­ing­bird at least 35 times. LU­CIANO DI­NARDO

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.

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