I remember when it happened- when Harper Lee’s work intersected my path and changed the trajectory of my life .
It was in Ms. Dossa’s 4th period class my 10th grade year. Every afternoon I sat next to Chase and we would listen to Ms. Dossa as she walked around the room holding a light-purple book with the infamous tree looming on the front. It had all the makings of a typical high school English class, except for the fact that when we learned about Scout, Jem, Tom Robinson, and Atticus, our life was different. It had to be.
I remember going home every night and reading just like she told us to, looking for meaning and motif. While I found the meaning and I found the motifs, I also found my purpose. In between the lines of
Mrs. Dubose’s courage, the dangerous dog in the street, and Scout’s view from Boo’s porch, everything became both simple and impeccably clear.
Harper Lee changed everything for me. Sitting in those burgundy chairs in Ms. Dossa’s classroom years and years ago, I discovered who I wanted to be in so many ways.
I wake up and look forward to walking into my own classroom because I came alive to literature when I first read the story of Jem’s broken arm. For the first time I felt the deep, cosmic emotion of getting lost in a story in another time, in other land, feeling a part of the plot itself, the highs, lows, and the sadness and anger of Tom Robinson running toward the fence because that was his best chance at freedom. I stay up late grading because somewhere in the very mundane process of deconstructing a prompt, I get to watch students catch a glimpse of that same discovery I felt so many years ago.
I could go on and on about how her work has informed my love of literature, but really, Harper Lee changed everything- and continues to do so- in more personal ways. One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is towards the beginning of the book, when Atticus tells Scout that the only way to really understand someone is to climb in their shoes and walk around in them.
This is it. This is the answer to the tension you feel with your neighbor, your in-laws, your own spouse. This is the way we are supposed to live with the people we see in our neighborhood, in our church, in our office, in our Facebook world, and in our elections. To actually understand someone, we have to get out of our shoes, our expectations, our way of making coffee, our way of voting, our way of church, and climb into the shoes of the other. We have to go towards the other, be it our spouse, our friend, or the people that we keep at an arm’s distance– actually, especially those people. And it’s not enough just to climb in, we have to walk around in the shoes of the other. We must spend time listening, asking questions, suspending our presuppositions and our understanding of what is right. To get the glory of Atticus’s closing remarks to the all-white jury, we have to first understand Mrs. Dubose. If we want to make amends and bridges, we have to start with the ones closest to us.
And all this I learned from a young woman in Alabama who felt deep her bones that something was wrong about the way we treated one another, so she drew us in through the eyes of a seven-year-old, and she painted a picture that told a narrative that was as true then as it is today.
What’s incredible and humbling and powerful is that I’m fairly certain many of you also have your own Harper Lee story. She changed everything for so many people. She’s a woman who wrote about a topic that is still the most contentious, palpably sensitive human issue in our culture. And she wrote about it before there were marches, before there were hashtags, before we had the rhetoric to discuss racism. She just knew it in her soul and let the characters come alive for us, year after year, decade after decade.
It’s strange to write about the passing of someone whose words have changed you but who you only know from her work. She was fierce and strong in such a graceful, human way. I am so grateful for her life, for the way her gentle story of a few kids in a hot southern summer faced themselves and the world in a way so many of us don’t have the courage to do.
Thank you, Harper Lee, for opening the door to a story, a conversation, a new porch with which we can view the people around us.