Thursday 22 March 2018

Harper Lee's teenage fanclub

Evelyn O'Connor has seen countless students transfixed by 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. Will they still love it after the 'prequel'?

Cultural legacy: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in the 1962 film adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel.
Cultural legacy: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in the 1962 film adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel.

There is a tension each time you begin. Perhaps this group will be the group who just don't like it; the group who turn away from the novel and by extension from you, the teacher, with all your flappy hand-wavy enthusiasm and later on, your choked-back tears.

The first chapter, you know, is a little slow, but by the time Burris Ewell yells 'Ain't no snot-nosed slut of a school teacher ever born c'n make me do nothin!' you can feel the novel sucking them into its vortex.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, in myriad ways, a wonderful novel to explore with a bunch of teenagers. It's not just sassy Scout who captures our imaginations, or the mysterious Boo Radley, who dines on raw squirrels and cats but has never been seen.

It's also the deeper exploration of what it means to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, to see the world through their eyes and to act on that awareness which grips the hearts and minds of all who enter the world of Maycomb, Alabama, as Tom Robinson, a negro, stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white girl desperate for someone to love.

Some of the richest conversations I've ever had with my students have emerged from exploring this novel. 'How can a society allow one group to be treated like complete scum?' they demand, and then a brave non-national in the room raises her head and says 'I know how that feels'.

'What is it about Atticus that makes him such an amazing parent?' and soon the entire room is contemplating what it might mean to always tell your children the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear. We take a vote then: 'if you could have your parents always tell you the complete unvarnished truth, would you want them to? And why?'

But it is the trial scene, above all else, that resonates, reverberates and sends shock waves through class after class of students with whom I've studied this novel. "How the…? What the…? WTF…?" is generally the reaction as the verdict is read out.

In that moment, the full realisation hits home that even in the face of overwhelming evidence, human beings often willfully ignore the truth rather than confront their own prejudices.

The injustice of it stings and as Tom's ultimate fate is revealed, disgust at man's inhumanity to man settles deep in the psyche of many of the students in front of you.

This then may be the key to the visceral reaction of so many adolescents to this novel. While it's perhaps a bit patronising to assert that teenagers have a keener sense of justice and injustice than the rest of us, I remember myself at that age, a wildly enthusiastic member of our school's Amnesty International branch and a vehement campaigner for free speech when I felt that my graduation address was being censored!

It seemed so vital then to 'speak what we feel, not what we ought to say' and in Mockingbird Atticus and Scout wonderfully embody this passion for the unvarnished truth, as they risk their lives rather than go along with the fantasy of Tom Robinson's guilt.

Of course, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that all of my students remember the novel so fondly. Just as science experiments won't set every heart ablaze, I am well aware that there are some teenagers who just don't like reading - my brother was one of them.

As an English teacher you can never fully understand this odd preference but you learn to tolerate it, just about.

And it helps, of course, that so many of your students, like you, seem haunted by the books that they read, the characters they meet, the issues they discuss.

You picture them treasuring their well-thumbed novels, even as all of their other textbooks get thrown away. You see them in your mind's eye one day reaching for the shelf to re-read that book from long ago and far away, reconnecting with the terror as Scout in her ham costume and her big brother Jem are attacked on their way home from the school pageant.

You wonder, too, if many of your former students will read Go Set A Watchman, the second novel Harper Lee spent a lifetime vowing would never be published.

You wonder if they, like you, feel intrigued and terrified in equal measure. What might it mean, to meet these old friends again and to find that they have changed, that they are not quite the way you remembered? And perhaps, that you liked them better the way they were in your memory?

How can we accept a racist Atticus? Or Scout as a grown-up narrator, when her entire charm in Mockingbird lies in her childlike perspective on a messed-up adult world?

One beautiful truth the two novels side by side may illustrate is that writers don't always get it right the first time around. Harper Lee spent two years re-working, re-shaping and re-writing the characters and events of Watchman until ultimately Mockingbird emerged and we are so much better off for her perseverance.

Perhaps, if Watchman disappoints, we can see it as the prototype, the first draft without which Mockingbird would never have existed and for this, if for nothing else, we can be grateful.

So pick up the book and do not be afraid. There is a tension each time you begin. But begin again we shall and this, dear reader, is as it should be.

Evelyn O'Connor is an English teacher and blogger who runs

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