This 'n' That

Sunday, July 11, 2010


"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken at the elbow..."

Those were the first fifteen words Harper Lee wrote in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Little did she know that soon after her book's publication in 1960, it would go on to win not only a Pulitzer Prize, but remain a bestseller for decades to come. The film version received eleven Academy Award nominations, winning three Oscars. (Gregory Peck won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.) I first saw the book in the hands of my mother shortly after it was published. An avid reader, she spent many hot and humid summer evenings enthralled by the words Harper Lee had composed about Scout, Jem, their father Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley and the mythical town of Maycomb, Alabama. My father, nor my two younger siblings dared to interfere with my mother's reading. It was always after supper and after the dishes were washed - by my younger brother and me - that she got comfortable in her favorite chair and in her mind traveled to visit the Finch family in Maycomb. She and my father would stroll down to the local theater to see the film version upon its arrival in our tiny town.

Years later in a college english class, my classmates and I were assigned to write an essay about a book of our choice. Being an eternal procrastinator, I waited until literally the last minute to choose, read a book, and write my essay about it. Miraculously, I recalled that my mother had not only read To Kill a Mockingbird, she had also seen the movie. So I immediately called her. I omitted the fact that I had an essay due in a matter of days. My inquiry went something like this: "Hey, mom. Remember that book you read...ummm, uhhh, the one you really liked...And then you and dad went to see the movie." Her reply: "I've read a lot of books..." "This one was about the south and a lawyer with two kids who defends a black man..." "To Kill a Mockingbird..." "That's it. I think." "Why are you asking about it now?" "Oh...ummm...I'm thinking about reading it. But I just need, uh, want to know more about it..." I readied my pen, had it hovering over note paper. My mother's long silence made me fidget in my seat at my desk. "H-u-l-l-o?" "Umm humm. Is this for one of your classes?" I was afraid to lie, but too desperate not to persist in weeding out the information I needed from my mother. "Kinda" "And you haven't read it?" "I will. I will. I just..." "I'm not going to tell you about the book. You'll have to read it for yourself, young man. Better get busy....Hope you get an A. B-y-e." Dial tone.

I dashed to the student bookstore on campus, bought a copy of Cliff Notes on To Kill a Mockingbird, and frantically read the summary and analysis. After an overnight typing session, red-eyed I turned in my essay on time. A week or so later my english professor returned the graded essays to the class. With a grade of B- I thought I had done quite well, though I had not truly read the book. As I was about to leave, my professor called for me to come to where she sat at the front of the class. I was not guilty of plagiarizing a single word, so I knew I couldn't be had for that. What could it be? I worried. Finally. She was serious, not grim, as she stared into my eyes. "I can tell that you rushed your essay... Even after you had two weeks to write it." She was right. So I kept my mouth shut. She continued. "You have an innate ability to write. And I think it's a shame that you don't work to the best of your ability. The B-... could very well have been an A."

Whether my english professor knew it or not circa 1971 or 1972, she did shame me. Since then I have at the very least attempted to do the best I can do when it comes to the written word. Some positive results have come of it. But for some odd reason or another, I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird from the beginning to the end.