When I set off to make a film and write a book about To Kill a Mockingbird, I knew high school English teachers would be a part of the audience—but I didn’t know just how enthusiastic they would be.
Fifty years later, Harper Lee’s first and only novel is a staple of high school English classes. Though never assigned to me as a student thirty years ago, I read it on my own one spring break. But my adult rereading made me a student of Lee’s novel. My fascination and my questions led me to the book and the movie.
The movie, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and the book Scout, Atticus & Boo, A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, feature interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, James McBride and Anna Quindlen, and others, including Lee’s 99 year-old sister Alice who is still practicing law in their hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
If I missed the chance to savor the novel with the help of a teacher while I was in high school, I am more than making up for it now. I found out just how responsive and appreciative teachers are when I previewed a part of my documentary at the recent convention of National Council of Teachers of English.
It’s not surprising. No one knows more about why Harper Lee’s first and only novel remains so popular than the teachers who teach it. They are a big part of the reason. Teachers have always known what I found out when I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult—it rewards endlessly. I don’t think you can say that about most favorites from childhood and adolescence.
To Kill a Mockingbird debuted in the summer of 1960. America was a different place and reading it was a different experience to be sure. While many think of it as a novel OF the civil rights movement, To Kill a Mockingbird preceded the biggest protests and battles and, many would argue, helped to bring them on. In my book and documentary I place the novel’s publication in the context of those times when it made such an impact. I also explored the many parallels between the fictional Finches of Maycomb and the real- life Lees of Monroeville.
When I showed my excerpt at the convention last month, the English teachers laughed at Scout’s funnier lines as read by the novelist Adriana Trigiani, nodded vigorously when novelists Wally Lamb and Lee Smith described their own experiences teaching the novel, murmured with delight when Miss Alice Lee makes her appearance, sighed when Allan Gurganus read a glorious passage about Boo Radley and cried when Oprah cried reading the passage that ends, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin.” They were rapt when Joy and Michael Brown, Harper Lee’s New York friends talked about the gift they gave her Christmas Day 1956: the money to take a year off and write full time.
I had great discussions in the hallway afterward. I am scheduling in person or SKYPE visits to their schools. That day, I signed 100 books at the Harper Collins booth, had more great talks and experienced a tremendous sense of community. They thanked me and I thanked them. These are my people. They are the people who love and respect To Kill a Mockingbird and they spread it around. Forget Facebook. I think this is the best social network on the planet.