Harper Lee's Impact on My World

About Sarah Denham

Sarah has been a classroom teacher for ten years and is certified in almost every subject area. She also holds a Bachelors and Masters in Social Studies and a Specialist in Instructional Tech. She is also an ed tech guru who loves blending current technologies into her literature classroom. When she is not teaching, Sarah loves books, writing, playing with her dogs, and going on adventures with her husband. Sarah loves to hear from readers and other fellow educators so feel free to contact her at @EdTechieSarah or sarah.denham416@gmail.com.

In early 1998, I sat in my Honors 9th Grade Literature Class with several of my friends. So far that year, we had already discussed our summer reading, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, read works by Edgar Allen Poe, and play-acted Romeo and Juliet. Now, we were going to start a book that my parents had read when they were teenagers, To Kill a Mockingbird. When I picked up this book, I did not know that this book and its author would help shape what I would become as an adult and a teacher.

Some say that To Kill a Mockingbird is just a book about childhood in the 1930’s South, but it is much more than that. It is about understanding your home, coming to terms with what you are a part of, and knowing that you can stand up for what is right, no matter what. When I first read this in 1998, I believed that is what Harper Lee tried to do. I went to a high school in northwestern Georgia that was located down the street from two Civil War battles, had a historical marker for a Confederate encampment not far from it, and was about 15 miles away from a possible KKK meeting spot. This is probably not a surprise, but I am not proud of these facts.  This was something that as a teenager growing up in the late 20th century South, I had to deal with. When you grow up in the South, you have to come to terms with a lot of positive and negative parts of your region’s history.

Like Ms. Lee, I come from a long line of Southerners from Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Growing up, I read and discussed the various historical points of the American South with my parents and relatives. I knew that there were parts of my family history that were probably not pleasant. This did shock me in some way as a child. My parents and grandparents knew this shocked me, but encouraged me to learn and question.  Before I started high school, my maternal grandfather and my parents had taught me that our ancestors do not define us. We have to learn from their experiences and try to make a better world for our descendants. I think that is why Ms. Lee’s book had such an impact on me.

I wanted to be like Atticus Finch in the courtroom and defend my fellow man from injustice. In my junior and senior year of high school, there were many moments where I was arguing about some major political injustice going on in the world at lunch or in my Social Studies class. I was definitely a crusader. I may not be a lawyer today, but as a teacher, I try to show my students this when I teach about human rights, the Holocaust, Civil Rights, etc. I currently have used scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird to drive points home for my students, to connect the new material for them. With my Model UN team, we talk about the lessons from this book when they approach real world issues like the Syrian refugee crisis, women’s rights around the world, or education of children. The biggest lesson I can teach my students, though, is through this quote: “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.” This may solve all of their problems. Maybe…

Last summer, when I read the controversial release of Go Set a Watchman, I felt the Harper Lee’s message become stronger for me as an adult compared to when I was a teenager. It showed that life and memory is more complicated as we get older, but that does not mean we do not give up on our ideals and beliefs. She still believed in doing what was right, even after finding out Atticus was not perfect. Atticus may not have believed in equal rights, but he believed every person deserved a fair trial. Like Daniel D’Addario stated in his Time article, “How Harper Lee Rocked the World,” “Atticus was always a devilishly complicated character in a story that’s as much an elegy for a South that was already disappearing by 1960 as it is celebration of childhood. A reader could cast a knowing side-eye at just how strenuously he told Scout he was representing a black man for no reason other than that everyone deserves representation, or a reader could interpret this as a passionate statement on behalf of blind justice. Both are right, just as Harper Lee’s South was both morally indefensible and home.” He is absolutely correct in this thinking.

When I discussed the newer novel with my mom, who grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, she said this spoke to her on so many levels. This is how she felt growing up. She had people she admired that were not perfect, that believed differently from her, but she knew that the world she lived in was not the world she wanted to exist. She wanted to make it better. She felt like Ms. Lee. She passed that message on to my sisters and me.

Harper Lee was one of my idols. She wasn’t afraid to say what she wanted to say. She didn’t care what other people thought. She published a book about human rights, racism, and the Southern during a tumultuous time in U.S. History. She didn’t try to write more books because others wanted her to. She lived her life the way she wanted to. If I can write one meaningful thing in my life, it will be because of her. I know that I am not that only one who is thankful for her words. Rest in Peace, Ms. Lee.

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By | 2016-11-01T13:53:49+00:00 February 19th, 2016|Current Events in Education, Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Sarah has been a classroom teacher for ten years and is certified in almost every subject area. She also holds a Bachelors and Masters in Social Studies and a Specialist in Instructional Tech. She is also an ed tech guru who loves blending current technologies into her literature classroom. When she is not teaching, Sarah loves books, writing, playing with her dogs, and going on adventures with her husband. Sarah loves to hear from readers and other fellow educators so feel free to contact her at @EdTechieSarah or sarah.denham416@gmail.com.

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