Soon our 8th graders will start reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been my experience while teaching this novel over the years, that students would gladly trade their iPhones, Xboxes, and over-managed lives to enjoy a taste of the lazy summer days and free-form, imaginative play that typified the lives of Scout, Jem, and Dill. While Lee’s setting of Maycomb, Alabama, is fictional, it captures the life and ethos of many small Southern towns during the Depression era; it might even seem vaguely familiar to many adult readers, reminding them of elements of their own childhood. But for today’s youth, the home of Atticus Finch and his children seems a strange and foreign land. I recognize that it is impossible to turn back time, and perhaps it’s a foolhardy desire, but I think Lee’s novel shows us that we’ve lost something worth recovering. Here are a few ideas, humbly offered, on how we might be able to find our way back to mythical Maycomb.
Meals & Family Time: Some of my favorite scenes from this novel occur around the dinner table. Mealtime was a metronome keeping the rhythm of their lives. No matter where the kids were, Jem and Scout knew their presence at supper and dinner was required. And it was here, around a hot meal, or at bedtime, that life was discussed, the day’s events processed, and wisdom gained. It was often at the table that Atticus taught his children about life, be it the pain of prejudice, loving your neighbor, irrational racism, or the importance of justice. He didn’t sermonize. Rather, by his non-anxious presence Atticus was available, during this protected, honored and unhurried mealtime, to discuss and process what the children were experiencing. Today, mealtimes have been sacrificed by our harried pace of life and untold commitments: be it school’s demands, parents’ careers, or athletic activities, to name a few. This is truly a grievous development, for when honored and used effectively, the dinner table can be the sweetest source of fellowship and spiritual nourishment a family enjoys. In fact, at WDCS, we honor meal time by practices and habits that remind students of the sacredness of breaking bread together. We seek when possible to have a teacher seated at every table, in relationship with the students, engaging them in conversation. Avoiding the stigma of a “cafeteria” and knowing the significance of the names we choose, at WDCS it is our “Dining Hall.”
Reading: While Atticus proved a source of wisdom, it was literature that formed Jem and Scout’s moral imaginations (Vigoun Gurian, author of Tending the Heart of Virtue, describes moral imagination as the power of the best stories to communicate faith, morality, and civic virtue). Atticus valued the written word enough to have a collection of books in his home, and he provided an example of someone who finds refreshment in curling up with a good book (even if they were law books) showing them that knowledge is attractive, and wisdom is a necessity. Not only did he read for his own pleasure, Atticus read aloud to his children, sharing the experience of a good story. Wisely, during the reading, he allowed for questions and discussion to help Scout process the language and ideas. Readers beget readers. Is it so strange? And it was the stories Jem and Scout read that helped them comprehend their own life’s events by providing them with context, a vicarious form of prior experience. They were making constant connections between their own story and the stories they found in books. To Kill a Mockingbird closes with Atticus putting Scout to bed with a good story, a story that helped Scout make meaning of the events surrounding Tom Robison, Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley. As for literacy and the value of reading in today’s households, well, in the words of the late Neil Postman, “we’re amusing ourselves to death.” There’s not room here to make the case for reading and I trust I’d be preaching to the choir, but this is a practice worth recovering as noted by articles in recent years in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Our school is fashioned in the classical tradition: we boast an impressive library with over 14,000+ titles. In the classrooms, we read and read often, seizing every opportunity to read aloud great books. This past summer, a dear friend of the school funded a unique program we called “West Dallas Community School Reads the Classics”: every student in our school received ten beautiful, hardback editions of a classic age-appropriate book carefully selected for each grade level. At WDCS, we’re doing our best to build life-long readers.
Unmanaged Play: Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill, did not have summer camps, sports leagues, or electronic media to keep them busy or enrich their lives. Largely they were out of doors, making up games, putting on plays, reenacting novels and movies, and occasionally getting into trouble. They were largely “free-range” kids in today’s parlance. While they were unfettered geographically; more significantly, they were free to travel as far as their imaginations would take them. Lee’s characters found that unmanaged play strengthens the imagination. The Finch children also obtained “boredom management skills.” Like all children, they got bored, but nobody panicked, nobody rushed in to rescue them by structuring their play; Jem and Scout were provided a valuable opportunity to learn how to entertain themselves and interact with their environment. Lastly, by virtue of being largely unsupervised, they had to learn to resolve conflict, compromise, share, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. Jem, Scout and Dill came to the realization that playing peacefully together was the most fun form of recreation. There is no arguing that the world is a more dangerous place today, but perhaps at times we let our fear get the best of us. I think we need to find ways to allow our youngsters a bit more freedom to play in God’s creation, get a little bored, and deal with it imaginatively. One of my most cherished images is that of our younger students at play on our playground at recess – it isn’t quite the freedom Harper Lee describes, but for 21st century kids growing up in an urban environment, it closely approximates the joys found in Maycomb.
Like most great novels, To Kill A Mockingbird is a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. If you’ve read it before, it is one of those novels that deserves a second look. And for those of you who have never enjoyed this classic, please consider joining our 8th graders and reading it this Spring; it’s a worthwhile investment of your time. If nothing else, you’re modeling something powerful for your own children or grandchildren: the deliberate act of slowing down and reading, just for pleasure’s sake.
Head of School
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