The Common Good

To Free a Mockingbird

September 30 - October 6 was Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read.

Photo by Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images
American actor Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch. Photo by Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images

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Surprisingly, Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird makes the list of frequently banned books.

To Kill A Mockingbird changed my life.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," says Harper Lee through Atticus, "until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

How much have I learned as a teacher and a writer by thinking about every person I meet with that consideration?

Recently, USA Network aired a fully restored movie version of the novel that included an introduction by President Barack Obama.

"Half a century later, the power of this extraordinary film endures," the president said. "It still speaks to us. It still tells us something about who we are as a people, and the common values that we all share. So I hope you enjoy the film, and if you haven't already, I hope you get a chance to read the book. It's an American classic, and it's one of my family's favorites."

In a rare public statement from her home in Monroeville, Ala., Harper Lee said she was "deeply honored" by the president's introduction.

"I believe it remains the best translation of a book to film ever made," she said, "and I'm proud to know that Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch lives on in a world that needs him now more than ever."

Monroeville is a quintessential small, Southern town with a population of around 7,000. This is the town into which Harper Lee was born and in which she still resides. She lives with her 100-year-old sister, who is one of the most sought after attorneys in the region.

You can often find them puttering around the First United Methodist Church, where they are lifelong members. They maintain an apartment in New York City, the place where Lee journeyed to write To Kill a Mockingbird, but spend most of their time in their hometown.

According to one study, To Kill a Mockingbird is behind only the Bible as the book that has made a difference in Americans' lives. It has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, the movie was Oscar-nominated in 1962 (Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor and Horton Foote won for best adapted screenplay), and there are people who give their lives traveling from place to place acting the part of Atticus Finch.

I am even friends with Atticus Finch on Facebook.

With all of the critical and commercial success that came to her, why did Harper Lee write only one novel? I wonder.

Perhaps she was able to say all that she hoped to say to the world through the eyes and heart of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch.

What do we hope to say to the world, and how are we saying it? Are we writing it, painting it, sculpting it, being it, or doing it? Who will be our Atticus Finches today? Thank you, Nelle Harper Lee, for showing us a way.

 

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Toleranceproject of the Southern Poverty Law Center

 
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