I’m a lifelong Southerner and a former English major; as both, I’m little embarrassed to make the following admission.
Until now, I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird.
I know, it’s crazy. I saw the movie years ago, but, for some reason, reading the book just slipped off my radar screen. It stayed on my list of Books To Read Someday, along with a hundred others, and I just never got to it.
Until now. I finally started it a couple of weeks ago, and I cannot believe what I have been missing all these years. I’m within about 50 pages of the end, and I find myself delaying finishing it -- I simply don’t want it to be over.
When I read a book, I usually keep a stack of sticky notes inside it. When a passage is especially well-written or profound, I’ll stick a note it, so I can remember to go back and re-read it. Most books I read end up with one or two notes inserted. A really excellent book might end up with four or five.
But here’s what my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird looks like:
There’s a thing or two (or 27) worth re-reading in there.
So much has been written about this book over the years, I hardly feel qualified to add to any serious literary criticism. While this book has spoken to me on about a dozen different levels -- as a Southerner, a lover of good writing, a history buff, to name a few -- it’s been as a parent that I’ve been the most moved.
I don’t imagine To Kill a Mockingbird was written as a parenting primer, but I think it could still be one. Atticus Finch isn’t a perfect parent -- he’s often highly distracted (raise your hand if you can relate). But his gentle of way expressing forgiveness and second chances to his children positively takes my breath away. (Have you read it? The scene in which Atticus makes Jem go and read to his mortal enemy Mrs. Dubose may be the greatest stroke of parenting genius I’ve ever seen.)
Here are a few more tidbits of parenting wisdom, courtesy of Mr. Finch:
“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
“Easy does it, son…She’s an old lady, and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.”
“Sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down -- well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down.”
But my single favorite moment so far has been the scene in which the runaway young Dill hides out in the Finch home. Newly discovered, Jem and Scout know they have to tell their dad what is happening. Dill is scared. Atticus is called into the room:
"He came to the middle of the room and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at Dill. I finally found my voice: “It’s okay, Dill. When he wants you to know somethin’, he tells you.”"
Those two simple sentences moved me to tears. They say so much about a girl who knows, quite simply, that she can trust her dad. That’s a powerful thing.
I want to be an Atticus Finch. I want my kids to know they can trust me. I want them to know that even in my distractedness that they are my most important thing. I hope they see me standing up for the right battles, not walking away.
My word, what a story.