Every year since I began teaching, my students and I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee together. They reluctantly open it and groan because after the first page, they almost unanimously claim confusion and therefore annoyance.
By the third chapter, they’re excited, irritated, laughing out loud, and angry. They love reading with a southern accent and can’t believe I’m letting them read a book with so many bad words in it.
That is, until we get to the “N” word, which everyone nervously reads or skips over. We always read a great opinion piece about the “N” word written by Leonard Pitts Jr. first, but that’s not the most controversial part of the book, at least not to my students or me.
The part they struggle with is the whole reason for the novel’s title To Kill A Mockingbird. They want to know why Tom Robinson’s found guilty and ultimately killed. Tom Robinson’s the black man accused of rape, but the evidence clearly shows it was impossible for him to do this. The jury comprised of white farmers remains unfair.
This year, a new element will enter into the inevitable discussion about change—What about Trayvon Martin?
The jury composed of six women appeared very different. The stories changed. Different characters. But, not different colors. There are the colors: it’s all still in black and white.
And, when that question comes: What about Trayvon Martin?
Suddenly, this room full of lackadaisical sixth graders will boom with anger and upset. And, what will I say?
No, not really, but yes, nothing, in the sense that I won’t give my opinion. I’ll have to let them read news stories and perhaps bring in articles themselves. But, ultimately, it will be up to them to decide what happened.
Mine? I act as a guide, just like with my own children, when they say the whole world is against Trayvon and black people, I say, I’m not sure about that.
Look at the jury, look at what happened, look at the facts, how are things different? How has the law changed? What can we do to change something like this in the future?
Should Zimmerman have had a gun?
Why did Trayvon beat him?
Would Zimmerman be alive and Trayvon be on trial if Zimmerman hadn’t shot him?
What if they were both black?
What if they were both white?
These are questions I don’t think any of us can completely answer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to answer this. I struggle with this.
I hate guns and in To Kill A Mockingbird my students learn how much the main character’s father and the lawyer defending Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, hates them too. He teaches us to walk in someone else’s shoes and to be kind to our enemies.
When Atticus encounters Mrs. Dubose, a decaying hateful woman who likes to call him a “Nigger lover” for defending Tom Robinson, Atticus removes his hat and tells her she looks like a picture. His daughter, Scout says, “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
I’ve been told that I shouldn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird with sixth graders, but now, I know I have to.
I do believe times have changed, but how? What’s changed? Are we better or did we just learn how to play a different game? What kind of game are we playing? Did we just change the rules and create illusions?
I’m not sure, but I know my sixth graders will spend time this year trying to figure it out.
Written by Lisa Chesser