What I Learned from Haper Lee

When I first heard the news of Harper Lee's passing, I felt the gut-punch of sadness--like a dear relative had died. Several of my friends and former students reached out to me via Facebook and text to "check on me" because they know my adoration for this beloved author runs deep. 

After a busy Friday, I finally found the time to sit with my sadness. I scrolled through my social media feeds, reading the tributes that so many of my friends and fellow authors wrote about Harper Lee. I posted on Facebook: I spent my Friday night with a glass of wine, my dog named Scout, and my well-annotated copy of TKAM thinking about all the ways that Harper Lee's words have impacted my life. I feel a blog post coming on...

So here I sit on Saturday morning (that has rolled into the afternoon)--struggling to find the words to express how a person I never met could have such a profound impact on me. Harper Lee is more than a reclusive author; she's been a teacher, a mentor, and a life coach--not because of a personal relationship with her but because of her book. 

Here are the lessons that I learned from Harper Lee's words: 

As a Teacher 
Every life lesson that I wanted to teach my students could be found in To Kill a Mockingbird
Empathy (ch. 3) 

Protecting the Innocent (ch. 10)

Integrity (ch. 11)

Courage (ch. 11) 

Justice (ch. 20)

Kindness (ch. 31)

Some of my best memories in the English classroom stem from discussions about TKAM. I had the privilege of teaching the novel for ten years, and each time I taught it, I uncovered a new meaning because I saw it through my students' fresh eyes. 

As a Writer
Reading feeds my writer's soul; it's the intake to my output. I don't re-read books because I'm a slow reader and like the cliche says, "So many books; blah, blah, blah..." But TKAM is imprinted on my writer DNA because not only have I reread it more than any other book, I also see it as the PERFECT book. It's my go-to when I need to fall back in love with words-when I need to be reminded of the beauty and brilliance of a well-crafted sentence that becomes a paragraph that becomes a chapter. 

Chapters 1 and 31 are the bookends of perfection. The first two paragraphs of TKAM set up the entire novel with questions to hook the reader: 

  • How did Jem break his arm?
  • What were "the events" that lead to "his accident?" 
  • Who are the Ewells? 
  • What did they start? 
  • Who is Dill?
  • Who is Boo Radley?
  • Why do they make him "come out?" 
Also in Chapter 1, Harper Lee's description of Maycomb is the ultimate study in writer's craft:

The last chapter of TKAM is my favorite chapter ever written. When Scout stands on Boo's porch after she walks him home, recounting the events of the book through Boo's perspective...it gets me EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

Then Scout refers to Jem and herself as "his children" and then says, "Summer, and he watched his children's heart break [referring to Tom's trial]. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him [referring to how he saved them from the drunken, knife-wielding Bob Ewell]." And then...THIS:

I mean...It just doesn't get any better than that. 

As I was writing my own book, I often asked myself "WWND--What would Nelle Do?" (I call her Nelle in my mind because that's what her close friends and family called her. In my mind, Nelle and I are fam.) Harper Lee's fingerprints are all over my first book rather that was intentional or not. 

As a Human Being
For many readers, Atticus Finch stands as the perfect hero--the person we all aspire to be. That was why Go Set a Watchman rocked the world of so many devoted readers. How could this be OUR Atticus? It was difficult for me to reconcile these two "sides"--this duality of Atticus Finch--but I tried my best to grapple with it here

TKAM speaks sharply against hypocrisy (my ultimate pet peeve). In Chapter 5, Miss Maudie's words to Scout and Jem in reference to the way Boo Radley is treated by his own family is a perfect example: 

TKAM helped shape my views on race. Chapter 23 is so powerful because Atticus tries to explain the verdict of the trial to Jem and Scout in a very adult way: 

Later in Chapter 23, as Scout and Jem try to process the verdict and how it fits into their view of Maycomb, Scout still sees the world through childlike eyes: 

But Jem takes it deeper at the end of Chapter 23:  

I think sometimes it's easier to be like Boo Radley. We live in a broken world full of injustice. Humans can be so cruel to each other. Sometimes we are tempted to stay inside our own "houses" and not speak out against the injustice and cruelty. Self-preservation feels safe and GOOD. But To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that humans are also capable of 


And it's only by stepping out of our "houses" that we can show the decency of humanity. 

It's up to us to decide what kind of humans we want to be. 

For a long time, I though Atticus was the ultimate hero in TKAM. And don't get me wrong--he is heroic in many ways. But after about the sixth reading, I realized that Boo Radley is the true hero. Although he is misunderstood and tormented by his town, he leaves the comfort and safety of his house--he risks his own life to save "his children" who aren't really his at all. 

Maybe we all need to be more like Boo. 

See what I mean? 

Books possess power. 
They leave a legacy. 

Thank you, Nelle, for writing the words that changed me and the world. 


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