Having focused my studies on Medieval English Lit., I'd never paid due attention to American Lit. You see, Am. Lit. studies are introduced, in my college, with the Puritans and Mrs. Rowlandson. If those are not enough to discourage any living thing on God's green Earth from studying American Lit, hell, I don't know what is, truly! I decided that if there was anything worth reading in their corpus, I'd eventually find it - or rather, it would find me. Good books have a way of finding you.
This vaguely pointless preamble is me trying to justify myself as to why I hadn't read such a basic book before. I just learnt the other day that any American teenager reads it in high-school. Not to mention it won Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize. #bookwormmajorfail
This week I finally grabbed the book; I read it in a day. I just couldn't stop reading it.
I spent an entire day with my eyes glued to those pages; I laughed at the children, got mad at Maycomb County and the Ewells (and even cursed out loud), and found myself in love with Atticus Finch. And I cried - at "Jean Louise stand up, your father's passing", and when Boo petted Jem on the head. I cried my eyes off when Scout walked up to her father and said she understood: telling on Boo Radley would be like killing a mockingbird. I couldn't even go on with the reading after that.But the whole Tom Robinson arc killed me.
Back in 2005, another teacher and I decided to show a movie to our students, since the topic of discussion that week was racism: A Time to Kill. I'd never watched it, but my colleague assured me it was really good.
The hell it was. When it was over, I was surrounded by my students, some of them offering me tissues, others petting me on the head and the shoulders; one of them brought me a glass of water. While I was still weeping like a baby, they gently led me back to our classroom. Damned movie.
Same thing happened when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Huck was torn between helping his friend Jim or saving his own soul by denouncing the runaway Jim to the authorities. He'd even written a note to Jim's old owner.
I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.
A freaking river.
It always happens with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame as well ("Who is the monster and who is the man?"). And it happened again with The Diary of a Young Girl and The Pianist. And when I overheard our neighbor Gunther's father talking about the Nazi concentration camps.
Gunther's dad, a German Jew, had been in Auschwitz. It wasn't until then that I realized why he had only one leg, and why he had those numbers tatooed on his forearm. Later dad asked me if I had paid attention to the story, telling me to never forget it. I just nodded, wondering how the hell he'd known I was behind the door, eavesdropping and sobbing in silence.
And yes, I'm a major weeper. Let's move on.
(Recently added: I just remembered one of my favorite quotes ever - and I'm shocked it didn't occur to me while I was writing this post, since I've always prided myself in being a Shakespeare geek. Anyway: call me crazy, but I've always kinda sympathized with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?")
When I was about 6, I asked my mom why one of our neighbors had called Sol, our maid's daughter (who would become my nanny a few years later), "a black girl" with such contempt. Yeah, she was black, so? Mom explained it to me very carefully - not in a too complicated way, but not dumbing it down either. For the first time in my life I heard the word "prejudice"; in a nutshell, her message was: "Dumb people think black people are inferior to white people." Was there any reason for that kind of thinking? She told me there were historical reasons and even biological theories as to that - but all of those reasons were, for her, rather random, and I was not to buy any of that. I nodded, but then shrugged, saying that luckily that was not our problem.
She looked at me, very serious. And asked me what color my friend Luciana's hair was. Baffled, I answered "blond". "Ok. Imagine a world dominated by blonde people, a world where blondes think brunettes like you and me are inferior to them. We'd be their maids, or slaves." I startled. "Why, that's ridiculous!" "Why so?" "Because... we're not inferior! We just have... a different hair color, what a stupid idea that would be!" "Agreed. Who's the tallest girl in your class?" "Luciana, or maybe Mariana S." "Who's the shortest?" "Me..." "What if all the tall people in the world woke up one day and thought short people were like animals?" I just looked at her, confusely glimpsing into what she meant. She continued, always gently: "Then, it would be your problem. And some tall girl like Sol would be saying 'that's her problem, not mine.' You see? Think from her point of view, and just how hurt she must've been when our neighbor offended her. You wouldn't like it if it happened to you. Your hair or your height do not make you inferior to anyone, just like Sol's skin doesn't make her your inferior. Only dumb people think so. And you're extremely intelligent, so you know better. And intelligent people don't ignore something like prejudice - they fight it, so that other people won't get hurt. Do you understand?" "I think so." "Good. Now let's watch the soap opera."
Sometimes I think this was a silly way to put it - but at other times I think it was brilliant, given her audience was a 6-year-old girl. But regardless of the silliness or brilliancy of her words, they hit home. The gods know my mother was flawed to no end, but she was thoroughly good.
And as I recall her speech to mind I hear an ever so slight echo of Atticus Finch in it.
If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
If only more people.