The first time I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a group of 8th graders, I was student teaching at Stephen K. Hayt School on the North Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Each morning, I drove down Lake Shore Drive towards my students, wondering if there would be a time when I’d tire of looking at the skyscrapers and the water.
My dad worked at Northwestern University’s city campus, and normally was at work hours before I left the house. But the days I took my first steps into my career, he stayed at home until I was off Lake Shore Drive and setting up my classroom. He blamed crazy drivers, but I think he was more concerned about my driving. I found any excuse I could to take that windy road, and I think he worried I’d get distracted with the views and my habit of blasting the car stereo. He knew telling me a better was pointless. Since I’d had my license I was on Lake Shore Drive—by myself or with friends—whether my parents told me it was OK or not. So my dad made a compromise: I could drive on Lake Shore Drive if I took the cell phone and called him when I got to Sheridan, where the road ended on the North Side. He’d wait to start his workday until then. It wasn’t exactly the compromise Atticus and Scout make when he promises to continue to read with her if she agrees to keep going to school, but still, it is an example of a father giving his girl a chance to explore the world the way she wants to explore it.
Those days, 8th graders with names like Gurendapal, Shacondalah, and Fatou howled at Dill, Scout, and Jem when they first met them. “Those are some weird names!” they all agreed.
“I suppose they are,” I said, deciding against telling them that if I were to ever have a baby, I’d like to name him or her Radley.
My students loved the scene where Scout gets in a tire and Jem rolls her down the street. They shrieked with haunted delight when she bumps into the Radley steps and is too dizzy to get up and run. They wanted to re-enact it. “I know the best house to ram into,” one said. “We just need a tire.”
A new set of 8th graders. A new neighborhood. This time, I was in South Bend, Indiana and my commute to school took me over the St. Joseph River where the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout swam upstream to lay their eggs before they died. I rounded a corner where Corby’s stood—a neighborhood bar my husband Jesse and I spent some evenings after football games or summer nights drinking Four Horsemen and watching fireflies. It took me past the University of Notre Dame, where Jesse was pursuing a doctorate in hurricane storm surge.
I could see the Golden Dome from just about anywhere, and it reminded me of being able to see the Sears Tower from anywhere in my neighborhood growing up, though the comparison stung. I have learned that I will forever be homesick for Chicago, but back then the ailment was so palpable it was hard for me to resist turning the car around and heading West towards the skyline, and not to school. A couple times, I did.
But I was there the day my students and I were struck by Mayella Ewell’s red geraniums that “popped in slop jars in her yard.” How did I miss that, I thought as I stood in front of a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds who were waiting for me to explain to them what we are to do with the sort of beauty that shouldn’t belong in the heap of the Ewell yard and the Ewell lives. I had no answer for them, but we all decided this scene needed to be illustrated so I passed out paper, they took out crayons, and we all tried to make Mayella’s flowers as beautiful as we imagined them to be. “I feel so sorry for her,” one student said as she colored. “I didn’t before; thought she was a jerk doing what she did to Tom Robinson.” She examined a red crayon before she looked at me, and said, “It’s more complicated than that, though.”