Reading lists, Harper Lee, and a little 1970s censorship

harper lee

With all this talk of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, it has occurred to me that in all my years of attending public schools in Georgia and Alabama, throughout my years as an undergrad pursuing an English degree, and throughout grad school, no teacher ever assigned this book for me to read. I have never once sat in a classroom where this book was discussed. That is probably why I have read it some 27 times. Because I didn’t have to.

And those really are the best books, aren’t they? The ones we choose to read?

In the past few days, as talking heads have waved around copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, praising it as required reading in schools for generations and paying tribute to the late Harper Lee as influencing millions of students, I have felt a little left out. I’ve tried to determine why no teacher ever assigned me to read it. And the only reason I can come up with is this: they didn’t want to deal with it.

Let’s just go ahead and admit that requiring students in freshly integrated schools across the 1970s Deep South to read TKAM would have seemed somewhat pushy and dangerous. This is nothing more than a theory on my part, but looking back, it makes sense that language arts teachers in my middle school would have winced at assigning such a book that would ultimately require group discussion from a class made up of confused black kids who didn’t understand why they were being bused to a middle-class white school. What a weird world that was. The whole arrangement was messy and awkward and must have thrown those language arts teachers for a loop.

This is just a guess here, but in 1970s Georgia, teachers and school boards might have been a little on edge about requiring a newly mixed group of students read a book that would confuse us about our role in this very new way of doing things. So in order to provide what we were likely missing in a language arts course that consisted primarily of John Steinbeck and Shirley Jackson short stories, school librarians quietly stocked shelves with multiple copies of novels like TKAM and let kids just sort of find our way. At least, that was my experience. And we did find our way.

Fortunately and unfortunately, I ran with a curious, goofy crowd—the kind of kids who always carried “not required” books with them in case classwork ran short and the meeting time ran long because Lord knows, the cool kids weren’t going to be passing us notes. If Judy Blume would have had a fan club at my school, we would have been its most loyal members, dog-earing the juicy parts of Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. To balance out our pre-teen angst and curiosity, we also carried around copies of books like TKAM, A Separate Peace, and Death Be Not Proud. Liberal and brooding and weird and fascinated by mid-20th century literature, yes, but still unashamedly intrigued by high school sexuality and the menstrual cycle. We were what I like to think of as “well-rounded readers.” You may have other terms in mind.

Oddly enough, nobody ever required me to read Judy Blume, either. They didn’t have to. Blume herself once said, “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.” I was one of those fortunate kids who did just that – I read whatever I wanted. If my parents had any fear of what I was reading, I never knew it. It was the’70s, for crying out loud. Parents didn’t care about their kids’ brains and emotions or how they spent their time as much as they seem to now. I remain grateful.

I also had a quirky grandmother who spent the majority of her years on this earth somewhat penned in by CBS soap operas, newspapers, and an odd assortment of non-fiction. She had neither a driver’s license nor a close circle of friends, so she spent a lot of time alone with her thoughts and, for many years, with me, her audience of one, who was deposited at her house for hours at a time.

Her grandparenting skills were somewhat unconventional. We didn’t cook or craft. We didn’t play games, we didn’t garden. We sat a lot. And we talked. And laughed. Sometimes we did all of these things while sitting in lawn chairs in her front yard, watching the occasional car go by.

While my grandfather worked in his shop, I served as roommate. My grandmother would give me her checkbook and make me read aloud check amounts as she entered them into an adding machine. She read aloud passages from Helter Skelter and told me more about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson than any 9-year-old should ever know. She would summarize the TV evening news and detail the adventures of Patty Hearst and review the details of violent crimes as if these tidbits could not possibly desensitize me later in life. As the sun went down, she would close the heavy drapes in the living room, bring in the dog, light a cigarette, and drink a PBR, while I read in the corner. At some point, we would eat dinner. If she was restless in this life, I never picked up on it. But I was just a kid.

I credit her for showing me the world, really, and that is an odd thing to claim about a person who never got to see much of the world herself. I read All the President’s Men at her house, without first knowing what Watergate was. She insisted I read Catcher in the Rye when I was far too young to be reading Catcher in the Rye.

She didn’t have a filter before “not having a filter” was even a thing. Not many people saw her I Don’t Give a Crap demeanor because few people even knew her. I suppose anonymity breeds an I Don’t Give a Crap approach to life. Maybe we could all benefit from occasional bouts of anonymity to balance the narcissism.

Anyway, this all leads me back to Harper Lee. Aside from the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee and my grandmother may have been very much alike. They shared the same last name and even had the same unattractive, utilitarian haircut. Reclusive and blunt, they each taught a young girl how to understand this crazy world a little more deeply through books that I probably had no business reading. And to appreciate the opportunity to sit in the shadows from time to time and just watch the cars go by.