Remembering To Kill A Mockingbird

While I was away at the end of last school year, the teachers in the English department decided to give the Engage NY Common Core curriculum a shot this year. It would not have been my first choice, but I'm a team player so I've been giving the lessons a shot.

The fall unit centered around a great novel in verse: Inside Out & Back Again, about a Vietnamese refugee girl and her family fleeing Saigon and finding home in Alabama.

This spring the novel is To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my all-time favorites. I love this book and movie so much I refused to let my high school English teacher kill it for me. Now, having to teach the novel for the first time, I'm remembering all that I love about the book. We are reading and watching the movie as we go, and more than once I've teared up watching Scout sit on Atticus's lap as she learns the lessons of life.

In the spirit of the book, here is an excerpt from Through Eyes Like Mine about the summer when I first met Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson.

Movie Night

It's late, way past our bedtime, but we rented a VCR and the Butlers are over so Mom lets us stay up. Mom picked out some old movie for us to watch.
            "Are there kids in it?" I ask.
            "The little girl tells the whole story, Nori." Mom says. "You'll like it."
            I take the stairs two at a time to the family room but still don't believe the movie will be any good. It's in black and white.
            The family room is still warm from the hot summer day. The door to the deck is open and a chorus of crickets filters in from the night. The grown-ups just finished watching a movie about some lawyer. Mr. Butler's a lawyer too with an office downtown by St. Francis. When he gives us a ride to school in the mornings, he gives us a word and we're supposed to look it up in the dictionary and tell him what it means the next day. One day I look up culpable which means deserving punishment.
            I lay on the floor as Mom turns the lights out and presses play. The tape clicks and the music starts. There is a box with crayons and a pocketknife. A marble rolls; an old watch ticks. A girl draws a bird and laughs. The people in the room fade away and my world becomes black and white. A little girl named Scout counts and swings from a tire tied to a tree branch. I follow her adventures until I can feel the thin denim of her overalls and the summer heat on her back. I imagine what Scout thinks as she sits on Atticus's lap on the porch and he tells her you never really know a man until you walk a day in his shoes. I wonder if Jem, Scout, and Dill will ever get Boo Radley to come out and if Atticus will help Tom Robinson. In the end, Atticus doesn't win, Boo Radley comes out, and I think I know why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

            The next day I pull on an old faded t-shirt and shorts fraying at the edges but I wish they were Scout's overalls. I climb up the crooked rungs on the willow tree and sit in our tree house. I look across the backyard at our neighborhood and wonder who in this town might be the Ewells or the Robinsons. I try to figure out how to get everyone to start calling me Scout but the name doesn't stick. No one calls me Scout, and the summer turns to fall.

           School starts, fourth grade, and at our first recess I notice an old house on the border of the playground. I peer into its dirty windows, past the dusty green jars cluttering the sills. It's dark inside and I imagine Boo Radley in there, plotting to murder his family. I tell my classmates about it and they say I'm crazy. I think about beating them up. That's what Scout would've done, but Atticus wouldn't have liked that. Then I see Matt Rose looking in the window of the Boo Radley house and I know he's wondering.

         Winter brings snow and during a close game of kickball, Richard Eigeren sends the ball flying over the fence into the Boo Radley yard.

            "Go get it, Richard," Matt Rose yells.
            "No way, that place is haunted."
            "Oh, don't listen to Nori. She just made that up from some old movie she saw."
            I look at my classmates and back to the dark house across the fence. "I'll go get it, you big babies."
            I sprint out the playground gate and up the sidewalk. The red rubber ball is far into the yard, resting on a pile of dirty snow. I look at the ball and remember the time Jem pushed Scout in the tire and she landed right on the Radley porch. I take a deep breath and push open the gate. One, two, three, four, five, six, I count my steps and heartbeats like Scout did when she was waiting for Jem to get his overalls from the Radley yard. I snatch the ball and huck it over the fence where the boys dodge it, not wanting to touch the rubber contaminated by the haunted yard. A dog barks and I nearly slip on the icy walk as I slam the gate and sprint back to the safety of the schoolyard, far from Maycomb, Scout and Boo Radley.


My Top Books in 2014

So after my year of reading, here are my favorites:  three fiction, five nonfiction, two children's and my one overall top pick.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The conversations about race and the inclusions of blogs reveal a view of America from a newcomer's perspective. Then, her modern Nigeria feels so distant from the one I read about in Half of a Yellow Sun. Adichie captures the feeling of belonging and not belonging both immigrants and Americans of color experience. 
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai This novel in verse is a beautiful refugee story of escape, family, and locating home. Lai captures a wonderful young female protagonist with all her flaws and keen insights. 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart  Love Lockhart's lyrical phrasing and how the culture of silences veil the truth. She had me turning the pages and this island story has stayed with me long after reading. 


The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward These stories of young men in Mississippi who find death too young felt particularly timely. Ward’s ability to capture place and character leave me in awe. She does fiction and nonfiction equally well.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I devoured Strayed journey and it actually made me want to hike and camp (and I hate camping). Strong CNF storytelling and I will have to revisit it since losing my mom. 

Marbles by Ellen Forney The connections between creativity, artistry, and mood disorders hit home with me as did the graphic novel-ness of it which captures in visuals a complex and inexplicable experience.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson This biography in verse follows Woodson’s early childhood from Ohio, to South Carolina, ending up in Brooklyn. She holds herself up in comparison to her siblings and slowly reveals her gift as a storytelling and writer. 

Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz In the same vein as Lolita, Ortiz explores how her middle school world shifts when her English teacher initiates a relationship with her. With occasional notes on her “excavation” as an adult, we get a break from the intense world of a teenager struggling to make sense of a life where the adults let her down.  

Children's Books:

Almost An Animal Alphabet by Katie Veggers This is my favorite of the many alphabet books Kiara has in her collection. The animals are unique and the drawings are smart and teach me things (like the differences between the Asian and African elephants). 

Sleep Like a Tiger by Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski This beautifully rendered book about a little girl who just isn’t tired and doesn’t want to go to sleep is perfect for Kiara as she transitions to her big girl bed. 

Top Overall Pick:

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki I love how this novel alternates povs and how each narrative masterfully unfolds the journeys of the two characters. Ozeki works in all kinds of science and philosophy and this book actually makes me want to meditate and study Japanese again.