Harper Lee (1926-2016): A teacher’s tribute

by Kayna Stout

The passing of Harper Lee has brought with it a well spring of memories. In 1995-96, I taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” (TKMB) to 150 ninth graders in Lindon, Utah at Oak Canyon Junior High. It was my first and only year of teaching at a secondary school. And, it was my objective to create 150 new fans of the novel. During our six week unit, I thought of every creative way I could share my enthusiasm for what to me is the greatest American novel ever written.

It just so happened that Brigham Young University was producing the play version of TKAM, which I had seen that semester. The child who played Scout was the spitting image from the movie that starred Gregory Peck as Atticus, Scout’s lawyer father. I tracked her down and discovered she was from Pleasant Grove just a stone’s throw from our school. I asked her and her mother if she could come to my six classes for the day and perform like she did in the play at BYU. For a nine year old, she was amazing in her ability to be in character with overalls and a Southern drawl. I had borrowed from the drama teacher a large black box for her to stand on as she recited line after line from the play and novel we were reading as a class.

My students were spell bound. There was not a single disruption during any of my classes, harper and scoutwhich was a first for me as a novice teacher. By the time fourth period rolled around, the drama teacher had heard what I was doing and asked if she could bring her students for the remainder of the day. Now with 60 students crammed into each class, our young actress was still mesmerizing them all. That’s the power of talent combined with an engrossing story and great dialogue. Harper Lee herself would have been proud at the way we were handling her masterpiece.

I was so intrigued by Lee’s seclusion from the literary world after receiving the Pulitzer Prize that I researched in the BYU library what else she had published. This was pre Internet when you actually had to go to a library to find something. I discovered the article she had written for McCall’s magazine early in her writing career before her fame. I went to the stacks and found it. I made a photocopy to share with the class.

As we progressed in our reading of TKAM to the trial of Tom, I thought of another engaging harper gregory peckactivity for my classes. I divided them into groups of five and provided each with tape recorders. I found quiet places throughout the school where they could turn their portion of the trial into a radio broadcast. I told them to be creative with sound effects and voices. They exceeded my expectations as we listened all together as a class to their radio productions. Another teaching triumph. I felt a kinship with Miss Lee; she was teaching her readers to become more tolerant people, and I was teaching my students to be the same.

We were in this journey together.

I had another surprise guest for my students as we headed toward the Christmas break. My mother-in-law Betty was visiting our family for the holidays and arrived before school was out. She’s from Georgia and has a soft Southern drawl. I convinced her to speak to my class about growing up in the segregated South in the 40’s and 50’s, the decades that followed the events in the novel. She had my Utah students in the palm of her hand. They applauded her at the end of her reminisces as a Southern born and bred girl.

I sent all my students home for the holidays with a chocolate gift I made. I found a candy mold in the shape of a bird probably meant to be a dove, and I wrapped each in cellophane with a red ribbon. As they headed out the door to start their Christmas vacation, I gave each student a chocolate mockingbird. I think Harper Lee would have approved!

When classes got underway again in January, I intrigued my students with a black draped box that resembled the size and shape of a casket. I told them that they would be participating in a funeral for Tom. There’s no funeral for Tom in the novel, but I felt like he deserved one, and asked the students to help me mourn his loss. They wrote down the good things about Tom’s life. I put a photo of a black man on top of the casket. I played a cassette tape of Mahalia Jackson singing with a gospel choir. The students stood by their desks one at a time and read their tributes to Tom. It was emotional and felt real to all of us.

I apologize to Miss Lee for taking creative liberties with her American Classic, but I think she would forgive me, a first year teacher doing her best to teach adolescents about prejudice and compassion. By the end of the six weeks of reading TKAM, I felt like we all knew each other a little better and had grown wiser about the world we inhabit.

As a final assignment, I asked my students to write a letter to Harper Lee telling her what they had learned from her novel. I told them I would mail their letters to her, but I didn’t. I’m sorry, but I was pretty exhausted just surviving my time-crunched life as their ninth grade English teacher. There were other activities and the occasional pop quiz, but all I wanted was to have them love that novel as much as I did and still do. I hope wherever they are now as 35 year olds when they hear the news of Harper Lee’s passing, they will remember that ninth grade teacher who wanted to make the world a better place. Thank you for the memories Miss Harper Lee. I’m glad I still have those letters. They are my connection to that special time and place in my life. Something that means a great deal to me.

The morality tales in TKAM resonate with LDS beliefs. The equality of all God’s children is a thread that runs through both the novel and the Book of Mormon. For example, 2 Nephi 26:33 could have been said by Atticus just as well as Nephi states, “… He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God both Jew and Gentile.” And I believe Atticus would have encouraged his children to raise their voices to a Mormon hymn such as “Do What is Right.” He exemplified the lyrics to this beloved hymn when he guarded Tom in jail against an angry mob. There are even echoes of Joseph Smith’s unjust imprisonment. These themes of equality, justice and standing up for what’s right are what make TKAM feel so familiar to an LDS reader. If it’s been awhile since reading it, doing so will honor the author for sharing it with us.

 

 

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