Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading To Kill A Mockingbird

I happened to stumble upon a paperback of To Kill a Mockingbird at the beginning of the year; I'd heard of the book many times before, but had not read it. So, I decided to buy it.
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.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

(Not) Standing Up For Others...

I was at the bus stop this morning, and a mother and her daughter passed by. I looked at them briefly, just like I'd look at any other passerby. Excpet that they were not like any other person. The daughter was mentally impaired, and the sight of it pained my heart.
And then I suddenly thought of Darana, a girl I hadn't thought of for many many years.

When I moved to Rio de Janeiro, I started going to this school where my aunt was the headmistress. It's a school for the  upper-middle class children, and there was a building just for high-school. Which means that said building was crawling with rich kids at the height of teenagehood. Or asshole-hood, that works too. Most of them were HUGE assholes.
And there was this girl one year behind us, Darana. Whenever she passed by, my classmates would make endless fun of her. As I wasn't actually paying much attention, I just shrugged. Not my problem - I already had my own stuff to worry about, being the plain, silent new girl and the headmistress' niece. Until one day in the bathroom, where there was only me and Darana. As we both washed our hands, I looked up at the big mirror in front of us, and realized Darana had Down Syndrome. I quickly looked back to my hands.
During the break I heard the mocking starting anew. I stopped reading and listened carefully. And to my surprise, they were not mocking Darana for having flunked, as I had vaguely supposed before: they were mocking her for having Down Syndrome. I was shocked. I sat there in silence as they went on and on about her being ugly, talking in a funny way and doing god knows what else.

At home, during dinner, I asked my aunt about Darana; she sighed and told me: it was... complicated. Darana was raised by her grandma, and she wanted the granddaughter to have a "normal" life, so, the girl was enrolled at a "normal" school. However, no kid at school had ever seen Darana as "normal". Apparently, there had always been the problem of mocking, which no amount of arguments and threats on my aunt's part had been able to solve.

I just watched the next few days, saying nothing. Then one day, during lunch time, I saw Darana sitting in a corner all by herself, drawing. I was pretty lonely myself, so I walked up to her.
"Hi. You're Lucia's niece."
"Yep, that's me. Hey, you're drawing Mew!"
Mew was this character in the first Pokémon movie; I had taken my little cousin to see it a few days before, and Mew was this adorable little thing. And when I recognized it, her face lit up.
"You like Pokemon too?"
Well, I had to admit: after having spent endless afternoons with my cousin and watching so many episodes of the damn cartoon, I had kinda warmed up to it.
"Yeah, I do. I watch it quite often. And... your drawing is amazing! It's exactly the same!" It really, really was.
"Thank you! Lucia's son likes it too, right?"
"He adores it." Hearing that, she carefully ripped the page from the notebook.
"Take it to him!"
"I sure will, thanks!"

The days went by, and with them an entire year. I had my first boyfriend in 2001, and my first heartbreak. I made a couple of friends, whose friendship I did not care to pursue after graduation - and I made other friends whom I still make a point of keeping around. And with all of that, plus wrestling with Math and Physics, and trying not to be TOO MUCH of a letdown to my aunt, I barely had time to talk to Darana, except when she showed up in my house for her private classes.
But at the end of the year there was this festival at school, where the musically gifted students would make a presentation. People sang, played and danced, and the whole things was was loads of fun.
And then, at the very end, Darana stepped up on the stage, in a white laced dress. I had no idea she was gonna be a part of it, and was rather puzzled. 
And then, they brought a harp.
She sat down and played it. Perfectly, flawlessly. Every single one watching was in awe, and nothing but the utmost silence reigned in the audience. The damn girl played the harp better than a whole legion of freaking angels.
When she finished, the crowd went wild, and all of us stood up and applauded like crazy. I remember crying, and my friend Rebecca comforting me. What can I say? I'm a softy. I also remember wondering how anyone could actually mock that girl, or wish her less than all the best in the world. So what if she wasn't exactly a looker? What if she wasn't funny or good at sports? She could play the harp like an angel, and draw like a consumate artist. (Err... I'm not saying that based solely on her Pokemon drawing, just so you know. I saw many other drawings, of landscapes, people and god knows what else. All of them flawless, I tell you.)

The next day, my aunt told me Darana was going to a school for gifted people (ok, that kinda sounds like the X-Men). I was happy for her - and that was the last I ever thought of her. Until today.
Thinking of that now, I regret the way I handled myself in the situation. True, I never mocked her, nor did I ever laugh at one of the jokes made at her expense. But I did nothing to stop it. I could've stood up to those jerks, couldn't I? I could've told them how fucked up that was, or maybe spent some time with her, been her friend... I don't know, I could've done SOMETHING. Instead, I decided simply not to interfere. That was sheer cowardice. Or perhaps selfishness. Either way, that's so not what I'd like to teach my kids. To avoid trouble or any kind of unpleasantness... that's not what life's about. Life is, or should be, about fighting. For those who cannot stand up for themselves, for what's right. My only defense is: I was 15. What 15-year-old kid is actually able to see beyond their own belly buttom, right? Precious few. I just hope that now, 10 years later, I'm slightly better than that. In the end, that's all you can ask for.