This morning I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I long ago lost count of the number of times I’ve read this book. To my mind, it is one of the best pieces of literature ever written in America. It is far superior to the other novel about racism often taught in schools, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not that Huck’s story is bad, but the sudden appearance of Tom Sawyer at the end just destroys credibility. Harper Lee doesn’t have anything like that in her book. Sadly, everything that happens in Lee’s book is believable.
It was To Kill a Mockingbird that taught me about racism. Before reading that book, it was no big deal for me to call someone a nigger when I wanted to insult them. The word never really had any meaning until I read this book. Now I hear kids calling one another fags and I can’t help but think how they’ve never known a gay person, never seen a friend die of AIDS.
To Kill a Mockingbird gets sadder every time I read it. It’s more than a story about racism, of course. It’s a story about growing up, about the passage from childhood into a world of adult knowledge. Granted, I didn’t grow up in the 1930s; it was the 1970s when I was Scout’s age, and the late ’70s when I first read the book. Still, something about the adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill — particularly the quest to see Boo Radley — always reminds me of my own childhood, of building boats to float in the drainage ditch, of sneaking into the cellar of an abandoned house, building treehouses, etc.
I picked this book up again at this particular time because the sophomores at Westmoore High School have been reading it recently. I envy them their first time with the book. I’ve watched many of them pull it out in the classes I’ve taught and begin reading after their assignments were finished. Sometimes I get to talk to them about the book a little, though that isn’t often.
So, why is this post named for Virginia Atchinson? Mrs. Atchinson was the librarian at Longfellow Junior High School in Enid, Okla. when I went there. The last semester, on nine weeks, of my seventh grade year I and a few classmates from my reading class were sent to the library every day for an advanced level of the class, taught by Mrs. Atchinson. She introduced us to books like Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and, yes, To Kill a Mockingbird. In eight grade several of us insisted on continuing the class, so on Fridays we’d meet in the library during homeroom (a 30-minute study period that doesn’t seem to exist nowadays) to discuss assigned reading. That’s where I first read The Lord of the Rings and several others. Mrs. Atchinson only assigned one book I hated, and that was John Knowles’ A Separate Peace.
Mrs. Atchinson was an excellent teacher. She would let us discuss the book first, expressing our own opinions, then she would lead a guided discussion about the points we were supposed to learn. Then she would let us discuss and debate the validity of those points. That reading class was probably even more important to me than the first creative writing class in high school. I might have just continued to reread the dog and horse stories I had at home for several more years if Mrs. Atchinson hadn’t broadened my horizons in seventh grade.
It’s a pity more kids don’t read for pleasure now. Sara does, and Amanda loves books. Alex will do anything to avoid reading. Not sure about Jake yet. So many of the kids in my classes don’t want to read. They’d rather text message, play video games, or just talk about each other. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird helped pull me from childhood to adulthood. Will games like Vice City and Dead Rising do the same to this new generation?