To Kill A Mockingbird
It occurred to me this evening as I was watching Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird that the first time I ever heard of the book was in the fourth grade. Our teacher was a tall and volatile English lady, prone to violent tempers at the slightest provocation. I am surprised now that we stood for it, that we took her abuse without ever complaining to anyone. But I suppose we were just children and we reacted like most kids would to an abusive adult; we cowered around and tried not to incite her. Miss Williams would walk around the classroom monitoring our work, hands behind her back, sometimes nodding her approval, sometimes making a snide remark. It occurs to me now that she may have been ill, that this was a form of mental illness expressing itself. Why her colleagues didn't do anything about it, why no one brought it to attention, I don't know. I was a child a long time ago and I guess back then these things were still a stigma. People talked about depression in hushed tones. Going to a psychiatrist was unheard of. People like Miss Williams suffered in silence, occasionally dragging us along with her.
It seems almost ironic now that this lady would keep by her desk a copy of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Every time we went up to her to have our work checked, I would look at its orange cover, trying to pry meaning out of the words. I didn't know what a mockingbird was or why anyone was trying to kill one. I almost never saw her pick up and read the book. But it lay there all year, its simple tale of childhood innocence, of strength and moral courage, locked inside the pages. I wonder what sustenance she derived from it. How much of her life did she find reflected in the narrative. Whose skin did she wear? And where did we, the children she taught and bullied and screamed at, figure in that association. It's easy now to see her as a kind of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, the old lady hurling obscenities at the children while battling her own private demons. Did she know what she was doing? Did she feel any remorse? At the time, I both hated and feared her. As an adult, though, I find it intriguing that she would keep that book by her side. Maybe it restored a sense of balance within her that was otherwise difficult to obtain. Maybe she wasn't Mrs Dubose. Maybe she was Boo Radley.
I remember at the end of the school year she bought gifts for all the kids in her class.