Why Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Sticks With Me Years Later

Atticus Finch is proof that empathy should never be underestimated.

When I woke up on Friday, I expected it to be an ordinary (read: boring) day. After all, I was off from work, so my agenda was pretty low-key. I might do some laundry, grab coffee, marathon a new Netflix show. Instead, those plans went completely out the window when I saw news on Twitter that stopped me in my tracks: Harper Lee died at age 89. Like most people I know, the beloved author was one of my favorites and To Kill A Mockingbird is hands-down the best book I read in high school.

So upon seeing this news, my entire routine changed. Admittedly, I even cried a little bit. I posted on the Facebook wall of my high school English teacher, who first introduced me to the book, thanking her for doing so. I also posted a few melodramatic tweets.

Afterwards, I walked to my Brooklyn neighborhood’s bookstore. I scanned the Fiction shelves and found exactly what I was looking for nestled in-between paperbacks from authors with last names J-M: a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird.

When paying, the lady at the register said, “Oh, I heard she died yesterday, right?” “It happened today actually,” I replied, semi-dumbfounded by the casualness of her comment. “It’s so sad!” She more or less agreed with me, handed me my change, and I spent the walk home wondering why this loss struck such a nerve — and why I got irrationally annoyed that the book store employee seemingly didn’t care about this news as much as I did.

As I flipped through the pages back in the apartment, I realized the answer. Although it may sound cliché, this book inspired my teenage self in more ways than one. During my English class junior year, I loved pouring over the text, seeking out symbolism, discussing themes in class, and then watching it all come to life in the black-and-white movie. I admired Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch and I chuckled when Scout dressed up as a ham in her school play. All of these memories combined sum up why I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

If I’d have to pinpoint it, it’s books like Lee’s that inspired me to become an English major in college. Granted, I decided to pursue more of a journalistic than literary career, but her writing talent is one I’ve always admired. Through her way with words, she reminded me of valuable lessons that still resonate years later: Empathy matters and kindness trumps all. Even when others don’t necessarily agree, if you feel in your gut that you’re doing the right thing, that matters more.

Throughout the entire book, Atticus reminds his kids, Jem and Scout, that caring for other people is worth it — even when the whole town is against the idea. Proving this, a few quotes come to mind, especially this one:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

After Scout has a bad day at school, Atticus attempts to comfort her with these words. It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me ever since. You can assume you know how someone feels, but until they tell you their side, you won’t know the truth. Of course I know I’m not a perfect human, but I really do try my best to hear people out and put myself in their shoes. It’s far more effective to let others share their story with you, than assuming you know how they feel.

Scout’s aforementioned ham costume.

In this quote, Atticus defines “empathy” better than Merriam-Webster ever could. There’s no denying that everybody’s different, so it doesn’t do any good to make blanket assumptions or think you know how exactly someone else feels. Still, despite the fact that everyone’s different, the common theme is that all people are human and deserve that same level of respect. It’s why Atticus takes on Tom Robinson’s case, knowing very well it’s bound to lose. At the time, he tells his ever-curious daughter,

“They’re entitled to full respect of their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

I’m all about this idea, because it emphasizes the importance of making decisions you feel good about — regardless of the criticism from others. I tend to be the type of person with a huge conscience, so much so that I let it dictate my everyday actions. I’m the first to apologize after an argument, and I even say sorry to people who bump into me on the sidewalk. I’m a big believer in giving people second chances and letting grudges go.

Tying into this, I’m the kind of person who tends to put the feelings of other people before my own. I’m unsure whether this is a good or bad thing, but Lee’s characters make me think it’s not a terrible trait after all. Sure, for a majority of my life, I’ve been plagued with people telling me that I’m “too nice.” Often it’s said in a well-meaning way, but it still always irked me. Probably because I don’t think there’s such thing as too much niceness; if anything, the world could use more of it.

It’s characters like Atticus that serve as a perfect reminder why empathy matters. And more so, why being a kind person shouldn’t be taken for granted. Even in Mockingbird’s last lines, Atticus says, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” This is a response to Scout’s realization that Stoner’s Boy was actually “real nice.” As someone who tries to always look for the silver lining or find a person’s good qualities, these words really resonate with me.

So thank you to Harper Lee for creating a book that reinforces this sentiment. Although it’s a huge loss in the literary community, her words will live on and her characters are timeless.