Channel surfing lands me on a showing of To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a film and novel that I used to teach throughout my career as a high school English teacher. I feel guilty watching it alone at home instead of with students in a classroom.
I can’t resist being drawn again into the compelling lives of Atticus, Scout, and Jem, if only for a little while. It doesn’t matter that I know them so well. These characters embody timeless human qualities that cannot be worn out through over-exposure.
Both book and film were mainstays in my syllabus for freshman students.
But my viewing of the film now feels incomplete and somehow wrong, since I won’t have an opportunity to stop the film at key moments to ask questions and hold discussions with students. I struggle with the idea that watching the film alone represents a lost opportunity.
Despite my retirement, I retain a deep longing to engage students in a close examination and comparison of book and film, knowing that the lessons for students will potentially replace their tendencies to judge harshly and unfairly what is different with capacities instead to accept, understand, and celebrate.
It seems a shame merely to observe the film without analyzing the characters and exploring so many ageless issues that the film evokes: race relations; prejudice; stereotyping; loss of innocence; disparities between appearance and reality; and so many more.
Harper Lee was such a bold and brave writer to have depicted America’s greatest sin at a time when our nation had yet to commit to atonement, and much of her audience surely reacted to her story with ridicule, rejection, and other forms of violent emotion.
Great literature, whether in the form of text or film, has the unique and forceful power to make people uncomfortable, to question long-held attitudes and beliefs, and ultimately to evolve and become more human.
I’m hopeful that among our political classes and in other seats of power, literature will become a more conspicuous part of our current national discussions about race relations and America’s history. It would assuredly help inform and enhance the conversations, enlighten individual perspectives, and lead to collective progress in our communities and society at large.