Recently the American novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its author Harper Lee have received a lot of attention because of the publication of her “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman. This summer I purchased copies of both books with the intent to read them both.
I wasn’t alone; for a while this summer, both novels were Top Ten New York Times bestsellers. But since you know me — either in person or through my writing — you may be interested in knowing my own reasons for doing this. To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that most American public school students read in the eighth grade. I, however, did not, and thereby hangs a tale.
First, let’s discuss why I did not read this wonderful, amazing, brilliant novel in the eighth grade. There are, basically, two reasons: the first is that I had already read it. The second is that I had the same English teacher for both seventh and eighth grade. And when “Bob” (his real name, but not his full name, as he may still be teaching English somewhere) realized that I had already read the novel, he didn’t think I needed to spend another six weeks (or was it longer?) slowly re-reading it as the rest of the class encountered it for the first time. In retrospect, this may not have been the right decision to make, but his intentions were good.
As I said, “Bob” was my English teacher in seventh grade. He was new to my school district, and — if I remember correctly — this was his first or second teaching assignment. He was 26 years old, and I was 12. I was the daughter of two teachers, a rabid reader, a diligent student, and a budding writer. I got through English classes with one finger serving as the bookmark for the front-of-the-textbook matter that the whole class was reading, and another finger poised to flip the pages to the much more interesting reading at the back of the book, despite the teacher-of-the-year’s exhortations not to read ahead.
“Bob” soon realized that I could read whatever was put in front of me, write papers that were excruciatingly organized, whip almost anyone in Scrabble, and diagram complex sentences until the cows came home. My saved English assignments from seventh and eighth grade are covered with his positive feedback, his encouragement, and his judgment that I could soon be submitting my work for publication somewhere. He gave me extra books to read and extra assignments to do to make sure I kept being challenged. He also gave me what was, apparently, some remnant of his college career — a spring-loaded black vinyl pouch to keep my folders and papers in. I felt honored and special.
Then came eighth grade, and he was my teacher again. This was not supposed to happen, and everyone knew it. To this day, I still don’t know why or how it happened. But everyone knew how the tracking worked. I had had Teacher “A” for seventh grade and was supposed to have Teacher “B” for eighth grade. Most of my friends moved on to Teacher “B.” I still had “Bob.” Everyone noticed, and that’s probably when people started to talk. (This was, incidentally, the year that The Police released the hit single “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” about an English teacher with a crush on a student who was half his age. Thank you very much, Mr. Gordon Sumner. You made eighth grade extra enjoyable.)
Eyebrows were raised, but my schedule didn’t change. We proceeded through the year with the usual assignments until it came time to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know if “Bob” asked for a show of hands in class or I discreetly let him know after class, but somehow I let him know that I had already read the book. He soon decided that it was better for me to give me new assignments than to make me re-read the book. And off I went on my own course, doing a sort of independent study while the class plodded through Mockingbird with oral readings in class and quizzes and tests a couple of times each week.
Somebody got upset. Somebody thought there was favoritism. Somebody thought I was getting special privileges. And probably somebody (or somebodies) thought there was more going on between the twentysomething new teacher and the teenaged student than met the eye. There wasn’t, but it was enough that someone thought there was. Meetings were held. My mother was called in to talk things over with the principal to help “calm things down.” It was decided that I would join the rest of the class in following the standard curriculum. I traded my independent studies for a paperback copy of Mockingbird, joining everyone else just as Bob Ewell was called to the stand. The quizzes were easy, the plodding was slow, and that was apparently the desired outcome. I managed to finish eighth grade without receiving any further accusations of misconduct, then went on to the high school and never looked back. What became of “Bob”‘s career, and what effect his decisions regarding my assignments had had on him, I never knew. I never saw him again. But at the end of the year I emptied out the vinyl pouch that I had so treasured, and returned it to “Bob”‘s desk when he wasn’t looking.
I eventually went on to Miami University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree, with University Honors, in the dual major of English Literature and Creative Writing.
Next: Re-reading Mockingbird