If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. –Harper Lee, 1926-2016
One of my favorite books to teach was To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t count how many times I introduced a class of freshmen to Atticus, Scout, Jem, Tom, and Dill. It was many times, but not too many. It never got old watching the kids absorb its lessons. It was even more gratifying seeing how the novel’s lessons stuck with them, actually becoming part of who they were.
Near the end of my 32 years in the classroom, I was having lunch with a friend who had never taught. Our waitress turned out to be one of my former students. There was that mutual flash of recognition when we looked into each other’s eyes. We greeted each other warmly. Then she, Beth, took our order and went to wait on other customers.
But the next time she came to our table, Beth took a few minutes to reminisce. In particular, she wanted to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, which she had read in my class. It was her favorite book from her four years of high school, she said. And she remembered a lot of its details. She called the characters by name, laughing at some of the scrapes the kids had gotten into. But more, she focused on her admiration for Atticus, as a father and an attorney. She was still outraged at the jury that convicted Tom Robinson for a crime he clearly did not commit. She referred to our class discussions.
When Beth left, my friend, looked at me and said, “I never realized how rewarding teaching would be.”
To be honest, I had once known, but largely forgotten, how rewarding teaching could be by that time. With retirement in sight, I was ready to move on to its less demanding lifestyle.
But Beth brought it all back. I left that lunch remembering what a privilege it was to introduce young people to a book that might literally change their lives. Just typing these words today reminds me of the best parts of teaching.
So rest in peace, Harper Lee. May you know how much you and your book have enriched the lives of countless readers.