Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a teenager was a seminal moment and awakening for me as a young man. It was the book that helped bridge the gap between teen and adult fiction. I was still pulp reading the likes of James Herbert and Stephen King but discovering Harper Lee led me to discover new authors like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce and Alisdair Gray.
The tension and segregation of the American south depicted in To Kill A Mockingbird was completely alien to me, partly because I grew up in a predominately white corner of rural Scotland. But I recognised the central characters of Jem, Scout, Atticus and Boo Radley straight away. The emotions of Jem and Scout were part me and part those of my friends. Bright, adventurous and easily misled. I could see Atticus in my own dad. Kind, fair, respected by his community and someone who also had a hidden talent for sharp shooting from his army days.
Boo Radley lived on my street too. There were about 3 or 4 neighbours who had older children who had either never left home or had returned home as uni dropouts or with mental health issues. They always seemed to remain mysteriously hidden and I would only see them during personal missions like Scout Bob-A-Job weeks or hear secondhand about their tales from my folks. My favourite being the story of the minister’s son (from the ubiquitous spooky Manse next door) forming a relationship with the reclusive/dropout daughter of the house across the road. They were both in their twenties and one day decided to build a raft and adventure down the local river. The story goes that they were nearly drowned and then banned from any further contact with each other.
By the time I began my 5th year, and was studying for my Highers, I must have read To Kill A Mockingbird 3 or 4 times. I had watched the classic Gregory Peck movie and seen the play adaption in Aberdeen. English and History were my favourite subjects. I was lucky to have had the same teacher for the first 4 years of secondary school, the inspirational Mrs S. But in my 5th year I suddenly had a new teacher, and we were at loggerheads with each other from day one.
Ma C was unashamedly Conservative. She enjoyed fox hunting, sent her children to a private school and claimed there was no word in the English language she did not know (she was right too, I don’t remember ever catching her out). And she seemed to hate me. After years of consistent As and A+s I was suddenly getting constant Cs for everything. I also used to love writing short stories but suddenly they were deemed to be universally pish. She even ‘gifted’ me a Mills and Boon book in front of the class as feedback to a story I had crafted about teenage misery and unrequited love. I read the story recently. It’s admittedly dire and bloated with verbosity and purple prose. But it’s also a cry for help. At the time I was blighted by chronic acne and suffered from intensely low self esteem. She just made it worse. I hated English, I could no longer ‘do it’ and I hated her.
But when Ma C announced that the next class text was going to be To Kill A Mockingbird and that, despite teaching it for many years, it remained her favourite book – I felt a surge of optimism. At last we had something in common. And, for a while, everything changed. I was different to her and she was different to me. I knew the novel inside out and she could tell. But I was always careful not to show off or steal her thunder (as was her teaching style).
One Monday she came into class brandishing a copy of a Sunday supplement. It was a piece about the reclusive Harper Lee in which it revealed that the author was gay. Ma C announced to the class that because of this she would find it difficult, nay impossible, to continue teaching us the book. I honestly don’t remember how exactly I reacted in that moment but I stoked residual anger and hatred towards her for many years after.
In the exam prelim I was awarded straight Cs apart from the A for my essay on To Kill A Mockingbird. It was marked by a different teacher. And in the final exam I was awarded an A. I know my adult self can calmly reason how grades are not ‘all that’ but THAT one REALLY mattered.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To be honest, my teenage self was equally capable of being cocky and arrogant but I am no longer angry with Ma C. I pity her if anything. I realise now that she was afraid, just like the poor white folks who were afraid of Tom Robinson. She was afraid of the unknown. I think as a society and as a profession we’ve come a long way since then. I hope I’m not wrong.
The influence of Harper Lee has accompanied me throughout my life. At university my history degree focused on modern history, slavery and colonialism. My dissertation was on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. As a teacher I have always been passionate about pupil participation, social justice, citizenship education, critical thinking and questioning. And celebrating diversity.