Upon her death, thoughts about how Harper Lee has given my students life.
One of my favorite days of every year in 7th grade literature is the day I teach the “mob” scene in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this scene, a mob has gathered outside the jailhouse, ready to take the law into their own hands and lynch the man being held there. And all that stands in their way is Atticus, the man’s feeble, old lawyer, who knows they are coming, and will do the little that is in his power to stop them. Meanwhile, Atticus’s children, Jem and Scout, fearful of what might be bringing their father away in the middle of the night, have followed him to the jail, and come upon this scene.
When they feel Atticus is threatened, the children run to his side. Standing beside him, young Scout looks out into the mob and sees a man she recognizes, a man who is the father of her classmate, a man who once owed Atticus money he didn’t have and was allowed to pay the debt off slowly, in the form of goods. Scout says, with guileless kindness, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” And essentially with nothing more than that, the mob is dissolved, and they leave.
Last year, after my students read this scene at home, I came into class the next day and asked them what had happened. I asked why the simple, seemingly irrelevant words of a child had the power to break down a mob of men. Some had a sense of it, and couldn’t put it into words. Others had absolutely no idea.
That led to a discussion of the mob mentality — of having courage under the cover of darkness; of being emboldened by the anonymity of dissolving in a crowd; of daring to do with the support of a group what you wouldn’t do on your own; of acting impulsively, on emotion, without pausing for reflection and rational consideration.
We discussed the effect Scout’s innocent words had on the mob. That they singled out one man, shining a spotlight on him that forced him into individual accountability for his actions; that they humanized Atticus who, in the mob’s rage-driven stupor, had become only an obstacle in their path; that they reminded them he was a man, a man who had shown them kindness, and a man who had children, just like they did.
As I tell this story, I can picture my students’ eyes, and it is the most beautiful sight I know. They were riveted. The scene itself had become sparklingly clear, and that is deeply satisfying. But more than that, they had gained knowledge that was potent. They had come to understand an important aspect of human nature. They had learned principles that would shed light on times they themselves had felt the victims of a mob, or been witness to a mob, or inevitably been members of a mob — because though they haven’t ever staged a lynching, they have all at some point had a mob mentality.
In Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson says that the value of reading is “the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who — let us admit it — are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than [we ourselves] are…You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense — more alive with meaning than you had thought.”
To make life “bigger, sweeter, more tragic, more intense, and more alive with meaning” should be the goal of a literature curriculum. And one of my greatest, most indispensable allies in the pursuit of that goal has been Harper Lee.