An English Teacher’s Little Secret…

We’ve all got them. Dirty little secrets that we secretly enjoy being discovered. Discovery makes us look cool and trendy, bucking the canonical establishment in favour of edgier, more unconventional texts. Everyone has one, a pesky little classic; giant of the canon, permanent fixture on your reading list or at the bottom of your ever-increasing ‘to read’ pile.

In my experience, they tend to be novels of a very specific type: definitely ‘classics’ in the old school sense of the word. There is an unspoken expectation that you will have read them. Most likely, you will have studied them for GCSE, or at least resentfully watched the movie. Think, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prej.; that sort of thing, novels that you expect the general populous to have a reasonable understanding of in terms of plot and character.

As a teacher of literature, it is these books that those who ran screaming into the hills away from English once their GCSEs were secured, feel able to discuss with you. Often, it seems polite to at least try. These texts, it seems, occupy a literary space akin to the social space of parenting: everyone’s been parented, thus everyone has an opinion on how to parent. Everybody’s read Pride and Prejudice, or, if they haven’t they can make a good enough show of it by having watched the BBC mini-series or Bridget Jones.

The time has come then for me to air my dirty laundry in virtual public: until very, very recently, I had not read To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t ask me why; I’ve always had a thing for American literature and, as it turns out, I now have a thing for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I decided to bite the Harper Lee bullet early before half term because it seemed like the best choice (by reputation) to teach to my delightful and curious GCSE class. Half term arrived, I embarked on a train travel odyssey to Kent (babysitting an errant Labrador), turned to the first page and, for the first time in years, I read a book in a single day. A masterpiece in escalating tension, the story is compelling from the start. The narrative voice of young Scout Finch frames the central plot through the eyes of children imbuing the injustice of racial hatred and violence with fresh rawness 56 years later.

A few years ago, I started writing in the front of my books the time and place I began reading. Apart from trying to keep some sort of record of my reading life, this habit quite accidentally highlighted the impossibility of dissociating the books you read from the personal and political context in which you read them. A dear friend of mine recently commented that across the western world the values of tolerance and difference upon which mature democracies are founded are being tested like never before. The rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign is testament to this; as is, of course, the outright racism and misogyny that US president-elect (words I can hardly believe I’m writing) Donald Trump has somehow been able to spew without consequence. Again in the UK, the appalling media response to the admission of child refugees is indicative of a society in which fear of the other has crept further and further back into the mainstream consciousness. The well-documented rise in racially motivated hate crimes speaks to the mentality of the mob and if there is an undercurrent of violence to this UK dynamic; in the US, such violence continues to be institutionalised and explicitly raced in the “numbing regularity” of police shootings of unarmed black men.

In the context of all this, To Kill a Mockingbird is importantly uncomfortable reading. The same friend recalled coming to it as a teenager and realising for the first time that “injustice truly existed in the world”. Coming to it as a thirty-year old the realisation is more that this particular brand of injustice still exists. Such a revelation should not come as a shock, but, reading such an acute depiction of an ugliness that remains familiar over half a decade since its publication jolts one’s perspective on human progress. It is important to clarify: I am not equating the state of affairs now with the state of affairs in 1960s America, progress has been made, I think. What hits home at this moment, when it feels like fear and hatred are winning, is how far there is still to go.

Further to this, a contemporary reading renders elements of the novel problematic: this story of racial injustice is fundamentally centred around the heroism and brilliance of a white man. Tom Robinson’s voice feels absent and though the characters of Calpurnia and the Reverend go some way to filling this gap, the story is still focused on white people and their actions. From a different margin, in a current culture where allegations of sexual assault are more often than not greeted with scepticism and suspicion, Mayella’s treatment in the court scene does not make comfortable reading.  A reminder perhaps of the ways in which injustices intersect and complicate each other: Mayella can be seen as a racist young woman living in desperate poverty who is brutally beaten by her father as punishment for an act of sexual independence violating the racial codifications of her world. People are not one thing.

I felt both exhilarated and depressed at the end. There is a special energy that comes from the immersion of reading a novel in such a short time period, especially a novel so wrought with political and social significance. I cannot decide whether to risk reading Go Set a Watchman, the recently published sequel/prequel. There was a good deal of controversy preceding publication surrounding how much agency Harper Lee had in the decision to publish before she died. I’ve been doing some reading around it and I’m not sure, I don’t think I want to read an Atticus who is not steadfast in his principled tolerance. It makes me nervous. It may well take me another fifteen years to get around to it, and perhaps, in that time, we will have come even further in the combat of this particular mode of evil. Perhaps.

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