I had first read the book years ago; it was one of those we were obliged to study in school for English Literature and our teacher at the time appeared to like neither books nor children. The volume, duly dissected for language rather than content, history or context, was mentally filed under those I am glad I had read once but would never read again.
I tend to remember books by ‘feel’ before any kind of detail. This one had left a dark, sad taste. It was like unpleasant medicine… you knew it was good for you but you wouldn’t take more than you absolutely had to. You certainly wouldn’t take it for pleasure.
Several years later and still very young but with a slightly wider view of the world, I saw the film. I understood the underlying issues better when I could bring more to the table myself, so I went out and bought myself a copy of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I read it in one sitting. Then I read it again.
I began to understand why the first reading had left such a bad taste in my mind and there were two main reasons that I could see;the age at which the book had been read in school was, of course, far too young to really understand the deeper moral and social implications of the rape, violence and prejudice that were detailed in the main plotline. It was, however, an ideal time to introduce them for deeper consideration, with young adulthood fast approaching and a world waiting for us to grow into it.
The other problem was the teacher. Yet it was a perfect illustration of a quote from the book:“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Looking back he was probably against neither books nor children… but he was of a much older generation and in hindsight, close to retirement even then. He had been clearly uncomfortable with the discussion of the subject matter surrounded by a room full of teenage girls. He was also our teacher for religious education and had deeply held beliefs that must have conflicted with many of the ideas we were raising. Every time we approached a particularly contentious passage we were moved from discussion to grammar. It must have been as painful for him as for his students to study that book. That, of course, I had never considered before.
We tend not to do that, as a rule… to go back and reassess our judgement of people or situations from that angle. It may be that we were right… but we are bound to have got things wrong at some point. We may go back in memory and pull our own behaviour to pieces, cringing at past actions that we cannot change. We may go back and reinforce our initial judgement of an event or person, but we seldom seem to revisit a scenario with the intention of finding out if we were the ones who saw things imperfectly. We form an opinion based on experience at the time of an event and make up our minds accordingly, never thinking that the future may change our perception; seldom thinking to look back and wonder if we had really understood someone or not.
We all know we ‘should not’ judge. We all judge all the time, even if we prefer to skirt around the issue by calling it by different names. Those judgements, conscious or unconscious, form the basis upon which we ourselves move forward and they colour our own futures whether we realise it or not.
Yet we learn and grow, constantly changed by the lives we live and such wisdom as we acquire. The hard edges of youth or anger may be softened by compassion as we understand more of human nature through our own mistakes, gaining insight into different motivations than those we may have attributed to others in the past.
When all is said and done, if we make a personal judgement about another’s actions it can, as in Harper Lee’s story, end in tragedy. More often than not, however, our assessments are purely personal and internal, remaining unspoken… possibly even unacknowledged. In such circumstances we ourselves may be the ones most hurt by our own erroneous judgements as we allow the future to unfold based upon them.
It is not possible to go back and change where the future begins nor to undo the mistakes we have made. It is, however, possible to let go of misconceptions, to change our perception of the past through compassion and allow ourselves to move forward from this point, from a place of greater understanding .By altering the angle of perception for a single point, many things may seem to change and shadows clear. We can forgive our less experienced self for getting things ‘wrong’ as well as letting go of old grievances that no longer serve; it lightens the load considerably.
So looking back tonight I admit I may have misunderstood my teacher where Harper Lee was concerned. Now I just have to work on why he had to ruin Dickens…