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The Wisdom of Atticus Finch

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Unknown-2Since the recent death of Harper Lee, I’ve been meaning to re-read her beloved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I refuse to read Go Set a Watchman because 1) I just can’t believe she wrote it, 2) if she did, I don’t believe she wanted us to read it, and 3) I don’t want anything to tarnish my view of Atticus Finch. The last time I was home in Cuero, sorting my parents’ things, I found the audiobook of Mockingbird, read by Sissy Spacek. I’m sure it was given to Dad when he could no longer read, in the hope that he would enjoy listening to it. But, it was unopened and never heard by him. I picked it up and threw it in my purse, hoping one of my kids would want to listen. Last week, I had to run an errand that required a short road trip. I remembered the audiobook on the way out the door and grabbed it off a shelf, then popped cd 1 into the disc player. Sissy Spacek’s slow, nasal, beautiful South Texas twang announced the performance, “To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Chapter One.” And I was mesmerized.

I hadn’t read the book since I was a young girl. In fact,  I can’t remember when I read it. High school? College? Actually, I’m embarrassed to admit, I couldn’t recall much about it except a few obvious details: the mysterious Boo Radley, Scout, Jem, Atticus and the courthouse. This is the beauty of reading for me…I can re-read novels a few years after initially reading them and it’s like a new book! Anyway, I have friends and family who’ve read the book hundreds of times. My sis-in-law reads it every summer. Now that I’ve heard Sissy Spacek’s melodic reading of the novel, I feel I’ll never forget it. She makes the dialogue come alive, subtly changing her vocal inflection to bring each character to life: the reliable, steady sensibility of Atticus, the sometimes hot-headed Jem, the sweet wisdom of Calpernia, and, she completely becomes Scout, the narrator and often impatient little sis. I listened to her reading for about 3 hours as I drove to and from the Texas Hill Country last week, and now can’t listen to anything else. I find myself smiling or tearing up, depending on the chapter.

For a woman who never had a child, Ms. Lee sure dispenses some awesome parenting advice. Listening to this audiobook makes me wish I’d read it over and over while parenting my three girls. There are lots of lessons here, which I’m happy to share in case you don’t recall the wisdom of Atticus. First, he was not afraid to let his children flail and falter. He quietly sent them to school without accompanying them, even on their first day. When Scout cried because her teacher was mean and didn’t want Atticus reading with her nightly, he calmly invited her into his lap and said they’d continue reading, but it would be their secret. When Jem cut the camellia heads off Mrs. Dubose’s prized garden shrubbery because she’d criticized his father, Atticus reinforced her assigned punishment, to come over daily and read to her. He didn’t explain that she was dying and the assignment wouldn’t last long. Gosh, where was the ghost of Atticus when my girls complained to me about a perceived wrong? I wish I’d had the wisdom and patience to say, “Now girls. Mrs. so-and-so deserves your respect and you will do what she says,” instead of “Are you freaking kidding me? That is just wrong and you need to tell her so or I’ll go talk to her myself.” When Jem and Scout told a half-truth in answer to their father’s questioning of what they’d done or where they’d been, instead of pressing the issue, Atticus would accept them at their word and wait to see what happened. Nine of ten times, the kids were mortified that they’d upset their beloved Atticus. It was a little different at my house. I’d yell, “I’d better not find out you’re lying to me. I’m going to call so-and-so’s mom and see if you’re telling the truth.” Hmmm. Probably not the best approach. And, when Scout went through a phase of using every curse word she’d learned at school, he simply ignored her. How hard is that? VERY. Yet Atticus knew it was just a phase that would pass without him addressing it. As we all recall, Atticus was the focus of the town’s hateful gossip because he was defending a Negro. He knew the kids would hear about it and instead of trying to explain how noble his efforts were, he told them to turn the other cheek and not engage in fights in his defense. Wow, I don’t think I would have done that either. Atticus kept his accomplishments to himself. His children thought he was ancient and had no talents. He didn’t try to correct them, rather, he led by example. Scout and Jem learned of his sharp shooting skills when he brought down a rabid dog heading toward their house with one shot.

I’m only a little over halfway through the audiobook, but I’m savoring every moment. I’ve already heard Atticus tell his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, which exists just to sing for our pleasure. Years from now, I may not recall much of the book, but I hope I’ll remember that. Never mind, I plan to read (or listen to Sissy) every year from now on.