Our topic of discussion at the book meeting was prize-winning books. I looked through the lists and there were a handful of books that I had read, and very few I had actually liked. Maybe I’m just not smart enough for high literature. I flicked back through the pages and I finally scouted one, a gem of a book that I utterly adored. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
I was 11 years old I think when I first read To Kill A Mockingbird. My older sister was studying it in school. I struggled with the first few pages. Scout was a girl and Jem a boy. The story of the Finches arriving in the County was hard to read. The I settled into what would become a heart-wrenching, loveable, sweet, sad story and a young girl making sense of an unfair world. 3 years later, it was my turn to study To Kill A Mockingbird. I was delighted, one of the few who was, as the Snapper by Roddy Doyle was the favourite choice. I used my sister’s book, giving me an unfair advantage: all the chapters were summarised briefly at the end and the key quotes underlines. I learned early the advantages of second-hand. As I read through it again though, I had my own observations to make, my own preference for quotes.
Tied forever to this book, is my experience of studying it in T17, a room at the end of the school corridor. It was the room with the most natural light, with windows facing 2 directions. It was a large spacious room, without clutter. It was the English teacher’s room and his calm and happy presence grounded that room, even when he wasn’t there. On my first day at secondary school, he recognised my brother in me, and I wondered what my brother had done that made him smile so. He led us through poetry, prose and plays that somehow largely encircled messages of fair play and justice, or at least that is how I remember it. There were days he would allow us to lie on the ground and he brought us though guided meditation. Maybe it only happened a few times, but it was a few times more than any other teacher. It was in his class I learned to debate. He dressed like an English gentleman, though his accent was very much Irish. He walked often with his hands behind his back, never rushing, taking life in his stride.
On one occasion, I remember him getting really angry with a girl, for what seemed like little or no reason. It shocked me, it shocked the class. His temper was rarely unleashed and when it was we had no doubt it was justified. That outburst was unusual and it was an indication of how highly we thought of him, that we wondered if he was ok today.
In my mind To Kill A Mockingbird took place in the American South within the walls of T17 and Atticus Finch was our English teacher, advocating truth and justice in a quiet, subtle way to change hearts and minds.