What to Do After Decades of Teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Wrong?

January 16, 2019 | 6 books mentioned 4 11 min read

My English department colleagues and I can spend a whole lunch break making fun of To Kill a Mockingbird. A literary roast punctuated by sarcastic regurgitations of Atticus Finch’s sanctimonious advice. Just, you know, take a walk in her shoes, dude, I might sneer, interrupting a teacher’s account of an encounter with a difficult student’s unpleasant parent. Most of us have to teach the novel every year, and our irreverence springs from discomfort. We’re tasked with teaching a book that doesn’t live up to its longstanding responsibility.

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In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry. Even before the 2015 publication of a controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and a more recent legal battle over Aaron Sorkin’s newly opened Broadway adaptation, writers have scrutinized Atticus Finch’s flaws, some suggesting that the novel be excised from high school curricula.  

The problem isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird as much as how teachers have learned to teach the novel—the way our teachers taught us when we were in high school, which reveals more about our past and present relationship with race than the book itself. I agree with much of the contemporary criticism I’ve read (although not complaints that the book is too audacious in its message or raw in its language). Still, To Kill a Mockingbird lets students assail a book’s long-proclaimed importance, which is common in college, but less so in high school, where literature is usually presented as something to “get” more than attack. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can help students, like Scout Finch, lose some innocence (and ignorance) about their country. A book exemplifying our ailments may be a better starting point than one that claims to have transcended them.

I teach very few black students in Marin County, a punchline for moneyed liberal dippiness, home of hot tubs with Mt. Tam views, elk reserves, and George Lucas. Yet my public high school’s student body is 65 percent Latinx, and in the days after the 2016 presidential election, a handful of these students reported heckling by town residents as they walked to school. Both white and Latinx students marched out of class in protest of the election results, but a contingent of white counterprotesters wore familiar red hats and swaggered among them. Three boys whooped in a jeep booming the late, racist country singer Johnny Rebel. Months later, a Latino student accidentally grazed one of their cars in the school parking lot. Via slur-riddled Snapchat posts, the owner of the car, let’s call him Darren, threatened to deliver a beatdown. After serving a suspension, Darren left school to avoid tension with classmates and teachers. His friends considered a retaliatory walkout. Some faculty fretted over Darren’s diminished college prospects while others wondered how bigotry could bubble over in enlightened Marin. But most knew racism had always been there—in the isolation of newcomer immigrant students, in the white students’ domination of student government and Homecoming courts. Brown students walk to the bus station after school as white classmates steer newish cars out of the lot. After the Darren incident, the school convened student panels and hired consultants to lead professional development lessons, but I figured that my approach to teaching could help heal my school too. From experience, I knew a classic (and mandated) text like To Kill a Mockingbird could make discussions less immediately confrontational. The responsibility felt even more urgent at the beginning of the 2017 school year when unrest over a Confederate monument saw a self-professed neo-Nazi kill a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, when a racist jury threatens to condemn a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, defense attorney Atticus Finch valiantly tries the case he’s supposed to throw, insisting upon the purity of an obviously flawed American justice system. “Some men were born to do our unpleasant work for us,” says Finch family friend Miss Maudie. Lawyers, like former FBI Director James Comey for instance, or former President Barack Obama, often revere Atticus. Perhaps in homage to both Gregory Peck and the character he immortalized, actor Casey Affleck named a child after him. In 2017, Atticus was one of the most popular American baby names, a testament to his towering status. Still, nearly 25 years ago, in my Louisville, Kentucky high school English class, the Finch family patriarch was badly miscast as a civil rights crusader. From listening in on the lessons of teacher colleagues at multiple schools, despite the recent critiques, I’m pretty sure many (probably most) teachers in the United States still peddle some version of the worshipful narrative I was expected to embrace at age 14: Atticus, a hero for his time (the 1930s), his author’s (the late 1950s and early 1960s), and our ever-shifting present.

This pedagogical tradition reflects a lazy analysis of the book. Transforming Atticus Finch from icon to naive man of fundamental decency but narrow vision doesn’t require a deviation from the text, just an honest interpretation.

For a well-read lawmaker whose family name is synonymous with fictitious Maycomb County, Atticus poorly understands how much bigotry shapes its inhabitants. He relentlessly, gravely sees the essential good in people who present to contemporary teenage and adult readers as various strains along the spectrum of villainous to ignorant and misguided. In the book, he’s almost lynched along with his client, Tom Robinson. His children are nearly knifed by a racist, drunk sex criminal Atticus refuses to ever consider a serious danger despite his repeated threats. When Jem asks about the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in mid-1930s Alabama, Atticus dismisses his concerns with privileged detachment. The Klan may have lost members in the late 1920s, but it didn’t feel like “a political organization” without “anybody to scare” to the families of four black girls murdered in Birmingham three years after the novel’s 1960 publication. In a mockery of evidence, Atticus supplies the story of a lone Jewish citizen embarrassing some faint-hearted Klansmen with the revelation he’d sold them the sheets covering their faces. Even Scout’s half-literate classmates (themselves young bigots-in-training) understand that “old Adolf Hitler” is evil, but Atticus makes a grand show of telling her and Jem that it’s not okay to hate him—or anyone for that matter.

As a member of the Maycomb County elite, Atticus has little experience with being on hate’s receiving end, and once he gets his taste, unlike Tom Robinson, he sustains relatively minor wounds: insults from Ms. Dubose, spittle in his face courtesy of Mayella Ewell’s real tormentor, and injuries to his children’s bodies that leave them bruised, even, in Jem’s case, slightly disfigured, but certainly alive. Atticus saves his fiery passion for threats to the courts (those “great equalizers”) because they theoretically involve white law enforcement officers, judges, and jurors doing the right thing; readers have no evidence the book’s events reshape his view of Maycomb and America. Considering Atticus emphasizes the essential niceness of “most people” to a convalescing Scout on the last page of the book, it seems likely, Go Set a Watchman’s unpopular revisionism notwithstanding, that Atticus maintains his status quo. He luxuriously learns nothing, hardly coming of age at all, and although Martin Luther King arrives in a few decades and America trips forward, it’s pretty clear that Tom Robinson will presage other deaths, real deaths.

Harper Lee gives students alternatives to Atticus. In her only appearance in the book, Lula confronts Scout and Jem when Calpurnia brings them to church for Sunday service. The Finch family housekeeper, Cal, has applied Atticus’s maxim about walking in the shoes of others, a worn piece of advice that most years I simulate by asking students to document routines in one another’s homes. At the town’s black church, where white people gamble weeknights, Lula is the sole member of the congregation to question the white children’s presence. Rebuking her, the congregation proves as welcoming as the white community is exclusive. At Tom Robinson’s trial, after Atticus concludes his stirring closing argument about the importance of fair courts, the congregation stands respectfully from their prescribed section. Does Lee mean to show that black people reject segregation because they know the pain it causes? That Lula’s separatist impulse mirrors the sentiments of white people who question her humanity and intelligence? Maybe we’re supposed to clap when the community backs Jem and Scout intruding on a rare black safe space for healing, for solidarity, for strength-building, but I prefer to have faith in Lee’s talent. For all her supposedly “contentious,” “haughty,” and “fancy” ways, Lula never reduces the humanity of Scout and Jem. She just notes that they’re invaders, giving them a tiny taste of what she has always known (and also pointedly asking if Cal is considered “company” at the Finch house). Lula and Cal would never be welcomed into a white congregation, regardless of who brought them.

Ironically, when I ask students to compare, in a response essay, Lula’s prejudice with that of white townspeople, typically a slim majority of them see no difference. To many, judging someone on the basis of skin color is wrong, and the power of white people to define and exclude black people doesn’t make racism worse than the self-preserving actions of black people. Maybe Lee wants us to see that prejudice is a two-way street (as some of my students claim in their writing). But given Lula’s limited screen time, Lee does too masterful a job at portraying her as powerless as well as impassioned, incapable of being heard by her own people, much less altering the white power in her midst, even when its envoys are two timid children. As Reverend Sykes harangues his congregation for abstracted sin with the same fervor as the white preachers Scout knows (and collects money for the Robinson family), Lula comes across as brave and realistic, attacking the essential unfairness of the scenario.

Students are usually surprised when I remind them that Atticus never explicitly denounces racism or impugns the characters of townspeople who revel in it. His warning that his children’s generation may have to “pay the bill” for crimes against black people smacks of fear, not hope. He stands against hate, but not, specifically, white people’s hatred of black people. Everyone has their blind spot, Atticus likes to say. Yet he proclaims to Jem that it’s “sickening” to take advantage of a black man. He places black people in the role of wayward children—ignorant, foolish, gullible. This is not an empowering message.

I don’t want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. While there are novels I’d certainly rather teach, in her portrayal of Atticus and his community of hypocrites and bystanders, Lee wrote a book far more relevant than she’s often given credit for by teachers. Bombarded with daily evidence that the United States remains hobbled by institutional racism, a contemporary reader may come to a pessimistic conclusion: The noblest adult with any power in the novel offers up no assault on bigotry itself, just the notion a spectacularly innocent client doesn’t even deserve counsel. Chipping away at Atticus elevates the book to bitter tragedy, both about the legacy of racism in this country and our inability to identify and combat it effectively.

Every year, I am more enthusiastic about sharing Beloved with my seniors. Its “malevolent phantom,” far grimmer than Boo Radley, comes to torment a formerly enslaved mother who made the profoundly human decision to try to kill her children instead of allowing them to be enslaved. The horrors of Sethe’s past have scattered mines throughout her present, walled off her future, and fragmented her autobiography. The book ends on an ambiguously ominous note. Yet in giving us Denver, her (possibly) Oberlin-bound adult daughter who finally steps off the porch of the old haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road, Toni Morrison offers some hope. Even with Denver’s bedridden mother adding a question mark after the pronoun “me,” as if she’s not quite sure of the self Paul D assures her she freely possesses. Once incapacitated by fear of an enslavement she never experienced firsthand, Denver brims with potential, a reminder to students that tattered stories can be stitched. In contrast, To Kill a Mockingbird leaves wounds gaping and, more offensively, ignored. Tom Robinson’s hopeless trial and eventual off-screen death is, as Roxane Gay suggests in this recent NYT piece, a formative event in the childhood of a precocious white girl. His imprisonment and casual annihilation is swallowed up by Ewell’s attack on Scout and Jem. Tom’s wife and three children live on, and I always wonder what it’d be like to read their pain, to trace the vacuum in their lives. I ask students to envision it. Beloved allows students to imagine how the surviving Robinsons live with that vacuum and the accompanying bitterness, for generations to come. As Sethe says, some things go, pass on, others just stay.

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Predictably, white students often clam up during the Beloved unit. “I can’t relate to it,” shrugged Nick, a good student, when I asked why his quiz grades on Beloved had slumped. He’d probably never wondered why his Guatemalan and Mexican classmates might have struggled to connect to 1984 or The Stranger. He could not find himself in Beloved unless he wanted to slip into the white skin of a slave owner, aging abolitionist cynic, or abused teenage girl. He was used to finding himself, if not in the behavior of Meursault or Winston Smith, at least in their bodies. Tracy, a transgender student who once pointed out the unfairness of teachers addressing class as “boys and girls,” insisted that slavery was over and that dwelling on its horrors didn’t help anyone. An English major friend from college has never read Toni Morrison, and when I once asked why, he responded almost exactly like Nick. Melanie, conscientious and quirky, seethed when I pointed out that the Bodwins’ boarding arrangement with Baby Suggs borders on slavery, and that Mr. Bodwin himself characterizes his radical political phase as a romantic episode that, by the end of the war, and with his advancing age, has lost its luster. Bodwin fights against slavery without understanding its evil. Atticus fights for the law without understanding the people expected to obey, serve, and be abused by it.

Race is such a severe line of demarcation for the quality and character of the American experience, white students find contemplating it daunting and disquieting and try to avoid it as much as most white adults. In an interview published shortly after the book’s publication, Morrison called slavery our “national amnesia” and suggested that she struggled to write Beloved because she felt like she was “drowning” in a history she’d gone out of her way to duck.

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“We haven’t forgotten; we never knew,” says lawyer John Cummings in a short New Yorker documentary about the Whitney Plantation, the unique Louisiana slavery museum he founded in 2014. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, Cornell professor Edward Baptist compares slavery to the first crucial years in America’s retirement portfolio; it juiced our economic strength and permitted political and military power to expand in the 20th century. Sharing such ideas over the course of the Beloved unit is my way of asking students to entertain the tattered narrative from which they initially recoil. What’s much harder is having them feel invested in its repair.

I’ve sometimes debated amicably with colleagues, the same who join me in tweaking Atticus, about the extent to which class material should be tailored to the interests and lives of students. To foster buy-in, teachers need to make material relevant. Sometimes that means students essentially only end up thinking and writing about themselves. Facing To Kill a Mockingbird, Latinx students often turn the discussion toward immigration. White girls tend to focus on gender, LGBTQ students on sexual orientation, and so on. As a conclusion to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit, I have students write appointed and elected officials proposing potential solutions to symptoms of America’s continuing struggle with racism. To date they have received responses of varying depth from Department of Education representatives and Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. When I assigned the project, students had no qualms asking if they could avoid writing about race and instead focus on marriage equality or the environment. One girl picked an alternative topic and submitted a letter without asking permission. The point of my assignment is not to strip students of agency. I want them to get out of their comfort zones and practice empathy. To imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus says.

My colleagues agree with me: a teacher can provide bridges between the unfamiliar and the known, but to be serious students (as well as decent human beings), kids have to learn to be curious and uncomfortable. They can’t loll in the padded cells of their own personal experiences and social media feeds.

I came to my current school from a school in Los Angeles that served only low-income students of color. When I made the move, I told a grad school friend that I felt a little guilty, like helping relatively more affluent students embrace their power and potential might make my work feel less meaningful. He saw no discrepancy. “Your white students need to understand power maybe more than anyone,” he said.

For six decades, To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught with the comfort (and power) of white students (and their mostly white teachers) in mind. Ensuring this comfort has led millions to an absurd reading of a seminal work of literature. It’s this misreading, and misteaching, ironically, that truly makes it our national novel. A To Kill a Mockingbird unit needs to be about the way this book was taught to students’ parents, and those parents’ parents, and why that problematic understanding of the book hasn’t benefited any generation. The repetition of the teaching mirrors the repetition of errors, from Selma to Charlottesville, the narrative tapestry shredding again and again. It’s good if, through English class, all students—Darrens as well as those they might target—come away with a rich understanding of how racism is foundational to America and how it affects the lives of black and brown people. It’s better if they recognize that all marginalized groups in the United States and abroad can find common ground. It’s a profound thing if they come away more empathetic, less likely to contribute, as a hound of Twitter or meme-sharing troll, to a culture of ignorance, callousness, and knee-jerk antagonism. It’s worth noting that Atticus, who preaches such magnanimity, never once suggests his kids slip into the skin of someone who isn’t white. Students in 2019 can learn from his weakness even more than his wisdom.

is originally from Louisville and lives in Oakland. He teaches high school English and writes for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Believer, San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, and other publications. He is writing a book (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) about how English class literature can help improve the relationships of high school students. He enjoys playing basketball and making music. You can "follow" him at @adlsimmons.

4 comments:

  1. God save us all from high school English teachers who think novels have a “responsibility” to teach their students “morals” about life. I wonder how many kids have been turned off literature forever by sanctimonious prudes like Andrew Simmons.

  2. The book is popular because it allows white people to feel good about themselves. Its treatment of blacks is patronising. Btw Aunt Alexandra is ‘enarmored’ when she first appears, not ‘enamoured’. Shame on the publishers who allowed this misleading typo to creep in.

  3. It is interesting—and telling—that in numerous school districts To Kill a Mockingbird is used as a replacement for Huckleberry Finn. It is unfortunate that Ms. Lee continues to be blamed for writing a feel-good story (as enhanced by Hollywood) despite recent revelations that her original intent was to present a more complicated and contemporary story.

  4. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird in High School helped me to realize that there was latent racism that was lurking in my own heart.

    It kickstarted my own journey to discover what it means to be truly human, as well as learning how to acknowledge the dignity of my fellow man, in whatever color, creed or walk of life they find themselves in.
    People like Andrew find issue in the fact that Atticus has serious flaws in his ‘hypocritical’ approach.
    Who doesn’t have flaws? That’s why he is relatable, and his virtues are ultimately attainable for the everyday man.

    Writing the perfect character, who had the perfect response to racism at every point throughout the narrative would only engender despair in the hearts of readers, as only perfect people could possibly relate to such a perfect example of humanity.

    While I appreciate Andrew’s insight, and can in some small way sympathise with his frustration at having to teach the same book year in and year out to swathes of disinterested youths, I would encourage him to stop thinking that the flaws of the book are a problem.

    To me, Mockingbird is the start of the journey, not the final destination.

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