By Alyssa Dioguardi, Bronxville School English Teacher
Feb. 13, 2019: The first year I started teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to think back to my own experience reading Mockingbird in eighth grade. As a lover of all things books, reading, and language, I was expecting to remember this book fondly as I did many others in high school but was surprised to find myself coming up blank. Not only could I not remember liking the book, but I couldn’t remember disliking the book, either. It was a wholly unmemorable experience, which caught me completely off guard. Now, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I reread it every year, finding nuanced ideas masterfully woven into the story that had gone previously unnoticed. Every year I finish the book with my first class, I find myself choking back tears as I stand with Scout on Boo Radley’s porch.
The reality is that while many of us have elevated To Kill a Mockingbird to a place of high stature within our minds and memories of American literature, it is really a book that we come to love later. Every time my classes and I embark on this journey together, I try to acknowledge this. First-time readers of Mockingbird, especially here in the Northeast, have a hard time relating to Lee’s Southern style and Scout’s two-page- long account of Simon Finch’s history in pre-Civil War America. It’s wordy, and if there is anything that turns eighth-graders off to a piece of reading, it’s wordiness. Each year, I make sure to tell my classes that once they get past the first two chapters, I promise, the story will pick up. Once you get used to Scout’s style of speaking, things will get exciting. And so together, we embark on trying to make sense of the picture Lee paints for us, through the haze of her own childhood memories. Inevitably, some kids are hooked right away, some become more invested in the trial, but most finally embrace Boo Radley’s mystique when Bob Ewell comes for Scout and Jem.
It is sometimes easier to think about the complexities and nuances in To Kill a Mockingbird when students are a bit removed from the reading itself. By extricating themselves from the deep think-work of language and craft analysis, students are able to find their own voice and opinions about Mockingbird. I know that for most, I won’t always be there for this experience. It comes later, along with that love for the book that I described earlier.
However, this year was different. We were given the unique opportunity to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation at the Shubert Theatre. We had finished reading Mockingbird a little less than a month earlier, giving students a bit of space between the act of reading the book and seeing the show. We prepped for the performance by revisiting themes of justice, perspective, and empathy. We also discussed and anticipated some of the issues that Mockingbird is most criticized for now: Harper Lee’s omission of character development for Calpurnia and Tom Robinson. We also discussed how Atticus may change (a play with a perfect protagonist makes for a pretty boring watch) while also acknowledging that Scout would no longer be the protagonist of this story. We went to see the show and I received the highest praise I could expect from a group of thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds who were brought to see an adaptation of a required piece of reading for school: “It was way better than I thought it was going to be!” That’s a win.
The truly special part for me was not the trip into New York or watching Jeff Daniels portray Atticus. What resonated with me was unpacking our experience in class the next day. In anticipation of guest author and documentarian Mary Murphy's visit on Friday, I had prepared a slew of questions to help kids consider the play and what they thought.
Turns out I really didn’t need to prepare anything. Each and every class spoke about Sorkin’s changes with great insight. They questioned his choices, expressed dismay over his omission of the depth of characters such as Dolphus Raymond, Mrs. Dubose, and Tim Johnson, the rabid dog Atticus is forced to shoot. They talked about Calpurnia’s expanded role, Atticus’s flaws, and Sorkin’s choices that sometimes led to some out-of-character occurrences. They discussed how Sorkin upended the plot and changed the presentation of materials, expanded the roles of Jem and Dill, and greatly diminished the role of Boo.
I could go on at length about our discussion, but in the end, only one really mattered to me. In each class, I did a quick poll. “How many people, when we were reading Mockingbird in class, didn’t really like or enjoy the book?” Expectedly, more than half of each class raised their hands. I followed up by asking them, “How many of you are surprised that you have such strong opinions about a book you thought you disliked?” Slowly, kids started to look at each other as hands crept up, and a slow realization started to creep across the room that maybe, just maybe, there was more to this story than they originally understood and realized.
Did every student leave my room with a sudden appreciation for and understanding of the subtle mastery of Lee’s work? With certainty, they did not. But I am grateful for the opportunity that seeing Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird gave me--a rare glimpse at the lingering effects our work and experience can have down the line, when we teachers are long gone from the minds of now-grown middle school students and they start to understand the lasting reasons behind our decision to share this book with them.
Pictured here: Alyssa Dioguardi with her dog, Scout.
Photo courtesy A. Dioguardi
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