Last week Harper Lee died. Stories and speculations abound about Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Greater literary critics and pundits have discussed Lee’s life and her writings, so I do not assume to have the capability to add anything. However, I would like to share my own small tribute to Harper Lee.
I remember so vividly when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I was half sitting/half lying in a small fishing boat. I was on my obligatory fishing trip with my Dad. I am not sure he really wanted to take me fishing each year, and I really did not want to go, but we found ourselves in a boat together. I believe my mother was behind this forced excursion. I usually spent most of my time reading, eating, and urging my dad to race his little fishing boat across the lake. I was less than thrilled with the time we sat still actually fishing. So while Scout was talking about her dad, I was drifting along with mine. Since I was quiet and obviously engrossed in my book, my dad actually asked me about what I was reading. I tried to capture the story for him, but I felt I had not captured the emotion. However, I guess I did a fairly good job of explaining because although my dad was not a reader, he seemed to take my recital at heart and urged me to continue reading. I came home that day with a fierce sunburn, a deeper appreciation for dads who listen, and a memory. I can still feel the rocking boat and the sun beating down; I can see my father sitting back with the engine getting ready to get that small engine to open up as wide as it possibly could. My memories of that day are entwined with Scout and Atticus and Boo and all the folks in the book who were so real to me.
One of my subsequent readings of To Kill a Mockingbird took place a long way from Kentucky Lake. I was teaching at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school at Canoncito, New Mexico (now called Tohajiilee). I was the only high school English teacher, plus I was responsible for a very small library. One day one of my students asked me about my favorite book, and I instantly said To Kill a Mockingbird. My students had not heard of the book, and I tried to explain it. Once again, I just could not get across the story as well as I wanted to, so I decided to read the book aloud to one of classes. To Kill a Mockingbird is a long book, but every day I read a small part aloud. I had always taken the setting of the story for granted, but my students had no understanding of the rural South. So I found myself stopping and explaining a setting I knew so well. I found myself reading with the cadence of a Southern storyteller which is exactly what I was except I was telling Scout’s story. I hold one particular day close in my heart. The weather was cold, dreary and windy. We were all sitting in a classroom that was converted from a store, and I was reading aloud the part where the trial is over and Atticus is walking out of the courtroom. Reverend Sykes speaks, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.” Not a sound was heard in our room as we quietly shared that moment and listened to the wind.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a part of my life. Sharing Lee’s classic story enriched my life, and it gave me a platform to have conversations that matter. ` So, my tribute to Harper Lee is one of a humble “Thank you”.