What Would Atticus Do?

Those very words have left my lips. More than once, I’m afraid. And not just during English class but while chatting with groups of 8th graders about life, liberty, and the dress code.
“Hey, Mrs. K,” said Janie, calling me over to a group of her friends. “You said you can find a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird for every dilemma. How about this one.” Kira was holding up an ugly pair of sweat pants. A teacher had asked her to change because her skirt was too short. Was it? Maybe just barely. But it was a dress-down day at school. And this is a girl who had never been reprimanded in her nine years at the school. She was angry, and embarrassed, and mad at the teacher because “she seems to enjoy catching students out of dress code.”

“She’s mean, and I’m not going to wear these . . . Do I have to change, Mrs. K?”

What would Atticus do if Scout asked him the same question? Well, she did essentially. Scout’s conventionally strict Aunt made a ridiculous rule. Atticus was about to intervene against the rule, but Scout beat him to it, rudely yelling at her aunt. So Atticus was caught between wanting to teach Scout to be respectful to her aunt and teaching her that her aunt’s views of the world were not necessarily his own. I reminded Kira of that episode and left the girls to discuss. I don’t know what she decided to do in the end.

A few days later, Janie ”“ who, for love of Scout, had adopted overalls as her official uniform ”“ came to me to complain about her gym teacher. As it was the last day of that class, I asked Janie to take the high road and make of point of thanking the teacher at the end of class. “But Mrs. K,” said Janie with wide eyes. “She’s a wicked woman.” (Yes, she has a wonderful flair for drama.)

“Well, what would Atticus say?”

Janie actually retrieved her book and hunted down this passage. In it, Atticus explains why he made his children go read to Mrs. Dubose, a truly cantankerous old woman who had fought to break her addiction to morphine.

“You know, she was a great lady.”

“A lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”

“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe . . . I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

Janie came back later that afternoon. “Well, I told her thank you. Actually, I said, ‘Thank you . . . Mrs. Dubose,’ but I don’t think she heard the last part.”

I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird because it reveals ”“ like an open wound ”“ the raw power of integrity, justice, and community. Not in the abstract. Atticus takes on Tom Robinson’s case because “I couldn’t look my children in the face if I didn’t.” He tells Scout that he couldn’t tell her to go to church, mind her manners, or treat others with respect — and expect her to listen to him — if he didn’t stand up for justice in this moment, a profoundly inconvenient moment. That’s integrity.

And yet he does not abandon the town that abandons him. He refuses to return ugliness for ugliness. If he cannot find a way to respect a person, he finds a way to feel for them ”“ without condescension. He feels the weight of Mayella’s tragic life, he tries to spare her as much pain as possible ”“ but his pity “does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake.” To me, he embodies civic virtue ”“ he embraces the obligation to improve society but will not abandon his community in the process. He is an activist out of the necessity of conscience; and he always has time to tip his hat to his cantankerous neighbors and look for the good in their souls. Here’s the best part: My students love Atticus. And Scout. And Jem. They attempt to see the world through the eyes of this family because it feels good to do so. I’ve read the book over ten times, and I never tire of “climbing into [their] skin and walking around in it.”

As we discussed the interplay between Atticus’ integrity and his commitment to his community, I shared this quote from Dr. Edwin Delattre:

Integrity means wholeness–being one person in public and private, living in faithfulness to one set of principles whether or not anyone is watching. Integrity is to a person as homogenization is to milk–a single consistency throughout . . .

Now, suppose that a person achieves . . . a substantial degree of integrity. Where will that person stand on abortion? Is it right? Is it wrong? Should it be illegal? Where will the person stand on affirmative action–on the ascription of rights to individuals and of rights to groups?

We cannot know where the person will stand. We can know only that the person will take such questions seriously and seek to answer them conscientiously and with rigorous, logical reasoning and deliberation. We can know that the person will extend humility toward others who are likewise decent enough to be serious. We can know that a person of integrity will understand that morality is above all a matter of taking life and its conduct seriously and will feel kinship toward others who show such seriousness in their lives.

Now imagine what this perspective could do for our civil discourse.

Question: If I had to pick one book to be my “secular scripture,” this would be it. What piece of literature would you choose — have you come across a book that has indelibly challenged or changed your thinking?

*****
Postscript: As I was writing this, I got an e-mail from a young man I taught last year. He had just watched the movie Blood Diamond and described a scene with a child soldier: “The father gets this kid to drop the pistol by reminding him of his family and life before the conflict – basically by humanizing him. I found this similar to in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout stops these people from harming them by humanizing the Old Sarum guy. She does this by reminding him of how Atticus is usually friendly to him or something like that”¦” I love my job.

16 Comments

  1. texasgal

    August 7, 2007

    Great post. Makes me want to be a better teacher.

    My “secular scriptures” are the poems of Robert Frost. They are right there by my bed with the standard works, and my ancestral histories.

  2. Angie

    August 7, 2007

    It sounds like you are a wonderful teacher! I love homeschooling my children for some of the same reasons you say you love teaching. I love the discussions we have, the books read, the joy of watching the people they are becoming. I’m not sure which book is my favorite. It seems to change with the seasons in my life and with what (my children and) I are learning at the time. I love TKAM too, but I think right now it’s The Hiding Place. That’s a very different book. I think of it as a personal account more than a work of literature, but it has so much to say on spiritual and family preparation for the ordinary and the unexpected, on relying of God, on discovering and fulfilling our purposes in life.

  3. Wendy

    August 7, 2007

    Yes, great post! I want to read To Kill A Mockingbird again.

    Though I haven’t read it for years (and never finished it), Les Miserables had many scripture-like truths, beautifully written, that I copyied with ferver and saved in my old quote file-box.

  4. Emily M

    August 7, 2007

    I have been thinking about this today, and I have to say the Little House books. You can ask “what would Pa do?” or “What would Ma do?” and get good answer, plus a nice glimpse into the work ethic and faith of that era. I loved these books growing up, and I’ve found they stand up well to rereading–the writing is excellent, clear and simple and descriptive all at once. I read them aloud to my son last summer and found myself choking up over and over at the beauty of their lives.

    For me, a secular book that functions as scripture has to be something I read as a child. The books I read then are the ones I read over and over, the ones that I own still and that stay with me.

    Great post. Makes me want to reread To Kill a Mockingbird.

  5. Justine

    August 7, 2007

    Deborah, there are too many! Just one!?

    A few books that changed my life? CS Lewis’ Til We Have Faces (never see revisionist historians the same), the Little House series, absolutely Emily! I was awakened to the beginnings of the feminist movement when I first read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in High School.

    But Deborah, I think I’m with you about To Kill a Mockingbird. It stands singularly at the top of the pile. I first read it as the only Mormon teenager in our town, feeling alone in my search for integrity and value. I came to understand that I wasn’t alone, that there could be real people like Atticus, I could find value in living a moral life. It really kept me from wandering away from the church at a time when I very easily could have.

  6. Deborah

    August 7, 2007

    Texasgal: I love “Death of a Hired Man,” “Design,” and “Mending Wall.” What are your favorites?

    Angie, I don’t remember much from the Hiding Place (it’s been years) but I remember the prayer of gratitude for the fleas. That’s an indelible image.

    Wendy: Les Mis, Moby Dick, and Ulysses are my guilty secrets — I haven’t read them yet . . 🙁

    Emily/Justine: I learned how to read because of the Little House books. My sister would begin reading one aloud to me, and then read the rest on her own late into the night. Then she’d start the second book . . . So I got the first 30 pages of all eight books. Great incentive for learning how to read independently.

  7. Tammy

    August 7, 2007

    Too funny. I have a friend who actually has a bumper sticker on his car, that his wife made for him, that reads “What would Atticus Do?”

  8. Carina

    August 7, 2007

    Deborah, I love you.

    I used to think What would Anne do? (Smash people about with slates?) And then I had a revelatory experience this last weekend that I am saving for my own blog. As a consequence of those momentous events, I am lacking a secular guide at the moment.

  9. c jane

    August 7, 2007

    What would Auntie Mame do?

  10. Deborah

    August 7, 2007

    Tammy: Really? Wow! I guess I’m not the only one . . .

    Carina: When you post it, put a link in the comments here so that we can be edified . . . though, will it cause me to lose faith in my middle-name-and-red-hair-sake?

    C Jane: She would tell me it’s ok to play Christmas carols in August, if we needed to, right this very moment.

    Justine: Thanks for mentioning a text you read in high school. As I plan for the upcoming school year (I’ll be teaching juniors and seniors — all girls), I often wonder which texts will have particular importance for particular young women. I still regret not encountering O Pioneers and Their Eyes Were Watching God as a high schooler. I love them as an adult, and I want to share them with my younger self. I think she needed Alexandra.

  11. Justine

    August 7, 2007

    I only discovered Their Eyes Were Watching God as an adult as well. I wonder what it would have meant to me as a teenager. Reading typical teenage fodder (Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, etc.) really only made me cynical. I think I would have benefited greatly from more redeeming works. Because really, Grapes of Wrath when you’re 15 can only depress your outlook on life. It’s difficult to appreciate the beauty of the writing when you’re still so entrenched with unfolding yourself. Even some Stegner in High School may have worked.

    What I wouldn’t give to have studied a little Welty, too. I love love love her.

  12. Tammy

    August 8, 2007

    Deborah- yeah, my friend is an atheist and he figures that WWAD will help him live just as good of a life as those who follow WWJD, and I can’t say I disagree.

  13. Heather O.

    August 13, 2007

    Deborah, you are a wonder.

    I have to second The Hiding Place as a book the fundamentally changed the way I view things, although I definitely place To Kill A Mockingbird and Til We Have Faces at the top of my list as well.

    Thanks for a beautiful post.

  14. texasgal

    August 13, 2007

    Deborah, thanks for being so kind as to ask my favorite Robert Frost poems. I like “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening”, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”, “Nature’s First Green is Gold” and especially “The Tuft of Flowers”. And ALL of them, really. I just love that guy.

  15. Deborah

    August 13, 2007

    Justine: I’m only doing one Welty at this point (“One Writer’s Beginning”) and just today added an excerpt from “Room of One’s Own” to my Women in Lit class . . . I spent most of the day decorating my new classroom, adding art and poetry to the walls, including this one by Naomi Shahib Nye (which I also could have used in high school):

    Open House

    I work as hard as I can
    to have nothing to do.

    Birds climb their rich ladder
    of choruses.

    They have tasted the top of the tree,
    but they are not staying.

    The whole sky says,
    Your move.

    Thanks, Heather.

    Texasgal: Frost is great with endings, isn’t he?
    ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
    ‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Comments are closed.

RELATED POSTS