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.