A Southern Teacher’s Thoughts for responders to NPR’s A Town Divided Over the Next Chapter Of An Iconic Harper Lee Book

In case you missed the hoopla article here is a link: NPR’s A Town Divided

th1FPI9Z89It would seem that many of the responders have not “read” the novel or been exposed to the universal and historical depth of the novel. Perhaps you read the Cliff’s Notes (mostly written by grad students) or used Pink Monkey or Sparks Notes –internet versions of Cliff’s Notes created by unknowns claiming to be “graduates of top schools” out to help a student reader avoid doing the work that is the honus of the student reader. It is the reader’s chore to use their own frame of reference (experiences, cultural and social mores, and observations) to make sense of the novel via the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution set forth between the covers. Perhaps you had a teacher that– just like some of those responders–did not and never will “get it” as Ms. Lee would politely suggest. And here is another “think coming for you”: perhaps Ms. Lee’s silence since publishing the novel was on purpose so as not to interfere with readers’ processing of the story she presented steeped in all its nuances: good, bad, right, wrong, secrecy, hypocrisy, sacrifices and salvations?  It seems to me that she had to wade through the painful epiphanies and the only way for others to “get it” would be to wade through the novel on their own.

img_6079-d76ea14e1676103f2c50cfe8e9359e0f83254faf-s800-c85Ms. Lee’s first novel is indeed timeless and there are sections, episodes, chapters, events, characters, phrases, motifs, etc that will forever be linked to current events as well as events yet to happen,  simply because we have yet in 2015 learned how to avoid / correct / squash / obliterate such evil. One should know that much of the novel is based on Ms. Lee’s personal experience and/or exposure to the Scottsboro events. These events would have been thrust into her daily living as she sat on her father’s lap as he read the paper, overheard on the radio during nightly news broadcasts, or as she wandered through her own town and was privy to commentary by her own neighbors.  Events she tossed into conversations with her father and undoubtedly others in order to understand the muck happening.  A link is provided at the end but suffice it to say that if you study the Scottsboro Trial documents and Ms. Lee’s novel you can, unfortunately, yet quite easily, align the two. Add in a father like Ms. Lee’s to help a young child navigate the ugliness of those events, an ugliness not allowed to breathe in Ms. Lee’s own home and so foreign to her that it pushed the boundaries of her beliefs of what she thought she knew, and you will clearly see the relevance of Ms. Lee’s novel. A relevance that applies to any culture of humanity that “can be better” as Arthur Miller argues in his play All My Sons.

thDHY08452For 25 years I have helped 9th grade students navigate this novel to create their own meaning and value. Far too often they see or experience injustice in its most selfishly primal form.  I read the novel to them and the first thing they notice is that my accent is different while reading than it is in my day to day speech. I read every word of the first twelve chapters as they follow along.  Eventually they step up and take over the reading.  And then I let Hollywood take over.  This is one film that Hollywood got almost perfect.  The crucial parts (as decided by moi) left out of the film are also read to them as I stop the film to fill in the blanks.  Time is a commodity in Hollywood and I understand that.  I warn them to avoid the traps of Cliff’s Notes, Pink Monkey, Spark Notes and any other “assistive devices”. I prove to them with the first assessment that not only do I know the novel (able to recite paragraphs at a time without looking at my tattered copy) and its history inside and out but I know the flaws and failures of these assistive devices. The assessments always gauge the connections students are making between the novel and their own lives. Kinda hard to get the answers to that through “assistive devices”. The need for the reader to “climb into” the book and “walk around” in it serves to help readers recalibrate all they have been led to believe is right and true and just.  Something invariably Ms. Lee had to experience as she was growing up. If done properly,  studying the novel allows students to relax or restrain  boundaries placed on them by other adults, institutions, peers, traditions, etc. They find their voice for their self and for humanity and I can only hope they carry that knowledge forward to help the world be “better”.  I may have to beg them to hang tight, trust me,  and trust that they will make it through.  I plead with them to wait for that moment when they can revel in the knowledge that they just used the novel and the primary documents available to grasp the notions of the novel.  Sometimes it is the first novel they have read.  Sadly, sometimes it is the only one they will ever read.  But combine the duality of the novel and the primary documents of the trial with the creative activities the students must provide as evidence of their learning, and they invariably make connections I hope for but never push on them.  Eventually they figure out that everyone has secrets (my accent gets an “aha” at some point in our journey) and that what we tolerate is within our control to utilize to advance the cause of justice or evil.   And no matter how many times I help them navigate (sometimes I lead and sometimes they do) we end up honoring each other’s understandings and we comfort each other regarding the pain of not having become any “better” since it was published. The students always help me see things with new eyes and my love of Ms. Lee’s novel just grows deeper and stronger.

-5077c6c4f1f9f1d2What saddens me most, however, is that anyone should doubt Ms. Lee’s actions regarding the upcoming release of Go, Set A Watchman without a firm grasp on her truths.  A Town Divided is seemingly full of folks, good folks I am sure, that just haven’t grasped or just don’t want to admit to that which Ms. Lee laid naked for them to absorb.  My guess is that the release of Go, Set A Watchman might be embraced by those that got it the first time.  For those that didn’t, haven’t, won’t ever get it, the next novel might just feel like a bandage being ripped off a festering open wound they never properly allowed to heal.

The Scottsboro Boys

Go, Set A Watchman

The 31 – 1937


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