There Will Not Be a Test on To Kill a Mockingbird [But Let’s Pretend There Is]

There is a reason that we are still discussing To Kill a Mockingbird 59 years after its publication.

The most I ever learned in college was not from a professor. I’m not referring to life lessons, or extra-curricular information, but specifically to one US Intellectual History class. The professor, well-respected and well-published, provided the spark, the facts, and the direction, but the actual learning came from a motley study group made up of a very-Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle, an angsty body-building Yankee libertarian, and me. How we came together I don’t remember, but I am forever grateful for their diverse perspectives and thoughtful intelligence.

Lectures happened MWF at 9 a.m., an early hour at a university noted for its nightlife. We set multiple alarms to ensure that we didn’t miss a bit of our crazy-haired professor’s insight. When exam time came, we picked up pizza and hunkered down in one of our crusty apartments, ready to cram. We didn’t review facts; we just tried to figure out what questions he would ask us.

We didn’t obsess about the details, because our professor didn’t. He wanted us to understand the big picture. We didn’t have study guides or practice tests: we just were supposed to make sense of the thought movements that had influenced the United States, and there were endless ways to consider the topic.  As we tried to determine what mattered, we bickered, disagreeing about what we might face on the test. We couldn’t discount anyone’s opinion, because we just didn’t know. We stayed up late, covering the waterfront. In the early hours we parted, to meet again after we had closed our bluebooks and signed the honor pledge, rushing out of the creaky lecture hall to high-five each other if we had guessed the questions correctly or, even better, if we thought we had known the answers.  We were excited about the material.  We wanted each other to succeed.  And, as we attempted to understand our complicated country in one short undergraduate semester, we didn’t realize what a gift our different perspectives gave us.

On August 4th, the Christ Church Cathedral congregation will gather to discuss Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Thompson will provide us with questions to explore in groups. It will be a conversation, most certainly not a test. But what if we prepared as if it were? What if we thought about this book from the perspective of those most different from us: what questions would they ask?  When we meet to discuss this novel, we will gather across generations. We will gather across political affiliations. Across gender lines, economic lines, and most pertinent to this book, racial lines. But we will gather with the intent of each of us coming away with the deepest understanding possible.

There is a world of intellectual, social, and political history packed in this novel. There is a reason that we are still discussing it 59 years after its publication, a reason that it won the Pulitzer Prize, that the movie won multiple Academy Awards, that Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation for the theater is the top-grossing Broadway play to-date,* and that over a dozen books have been published about Harper Lee and her one story. There is a reason that it is as controversial as it is beloved.

We don’t know what questions the Dean will ask us. But more important than those questions is the preparation we bring to the discussion. Consider the story from your experience. Consider it from the point of view of a Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle or a New England libertarian. As Atticus says, climb into someone else’s skin and consider things from that point of view. Because even though there isn’t a test, helping each other to understand the material makes all the difference.

*[https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kill-a-mockingbird-becomes-top-grossing-us-play-broadway-history-1208931]

Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.
~Emily Post

 

The Cathedral Reads: To Kill A Mockingbird

Experience a world much different than our modern, urban home, but in many ways the same—roiled by racial tension, peppered with a few good people trying to make a difference, and inhabited by kids watching and trying to make sense of the grownups’ words and actions.

Our lives are fragmented. We all watch different TV shows, and discussing Johnny Carson or Saturday Night live around the water cooler or the church coffee table are no longer widely-shared experiences. Some of us play bridge together, or attend regular bible study with a group, but others are bowling alone. But this summer, whether we venture to distant lands, enjoy a relaxing stay-cation, or just continue our routine with the AC cranked down, we have the opportunity to take a journey together.

Join the entire Cathedral community on a trip back in time to the Deep South of the 1930s. We’ll experience a world much different than our modern, urban home, but in many ways the same—roiled by racial tension, peppered with a few good people trying to make a difference, and inhabited by kids watching and trying to make sense of the grownups’ words and actions.

We’ll get there by reading Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Many of you have read it, of course, but like the gospel, a good story can be revisited many times and never fail to provide new insights. Read it for the first time and discover why the name Atticus Finch became synonymous with morality and reason, re-read it to discover aspects of Boo Radley’s heart you never considered. Take it further and research Truman Capote’s relationship to the novel or the legal history of the South. We’ll all read it, but how deep you go with it is up to you. There will not be a quiz.

Rather, we’ll have a celebration of story. As summer winds down, we’ll gather to talk about what we discovered in this classic novel. Kids and grownups will have the opportunity to share their insights and learn more. Then, in one of the rare cases where the movie is as good as the book, we’ll enjoy the 1962 Oscar-winning Gregory Peck film together with a little Popcorn Theology. Readers who want to go further will delve into the story with Dean Thompson in book club.

If you can’t make one of the events, don’t worry: just relax knowing you’ll be able to walk up to anyone at the Cathedral this summer, grownup or kid, and say, “How’s that summer reading?” or “What do you think about Scout?” “Do you think Harper Lee wanted to release the earlier version, Go Set a Watchman, or was she pressured into it?” There is much for us to consider in both versions of this story.

Sharing our experiences will be better than retelling Johnny’s jokes or reenacting Roseanne Roseannadanna, and it will leave us with deeper perspective and a little more enlightenment.  For those still in school, it’s a good opportunity to get some actual summer reading done with lots of support.

Whatever your motivation, join the Cathedral community this summer on a journey into a Southern literary classic that has as much to offer us today as it did when it hit the scene in 1933. Harper Lee’s messages, now more than ever, are important for us to consider as a group. In to Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus says. “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.” While that depth of empathy is not physically possible, exploring an important novel and a writer’s evolving perspective on the world together is a good way to start understanding each other and our own world a little better.

Sunday, August 4, 10 a.m., Intergenerational small group book discussions of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird in Reynolds Hall

Friday, August 16, 6:30 p.m., Popcorn theology (dinner, movie, discussion) of the film To Kill a Mockingbird

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 6:30 p.m., Dean’s Book Club deeper dive into the novel To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
—Harper Lee