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Kreis: Mockingbird At Home

05/06/11 7:55AM By Don Kreis
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Vermont Reads 2011: "To Kill A Mockingbird"

(HOST) While not all schools have discussions about race with students, it's something that some parents take on at home. For commentator Don Kries reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" to his daughter was that bridge to discussion. 

(KREIS) What does a Vermont dad of a nine-year-old girl do for an encore, after bedtime readings of all seven volumes of Harry Potter and all 13 volumes of Lemony Snicket? 

After gazing at my bookshelf for a while, the perfect book occurred to me:  Harper Lee's Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

What dad, after all, would not like his daughter to be Scout Finch, the smart, assertive but still innocent girl who narrates the story?  And what dad does not fancy himself to be a bit like Scout's father, attorney Atticus Finch? It is Atticus's moral courage - and his wise but permissive parenting - that seems so perfectly calculated to help Scout grow up to become an acclaimed novelist, as Harper Lee did.

I know what you're thinking:  Too young.  People have argued for years about whether To Kill a Mockingbird should be taught in high school.  So how could it be suitable for a third grader?

The answer, of course, is that bedtime reading offers opportunities to stop the story and just talk.

For example, there is the moment after Atticus has successfully demonstrated to a jury that his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, stands falsely accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus tells Scout he thinks the jury will return its verdict very quickly.

And here is where Scout's Vermont counterpart, snuggled into her cozy bed in Norwich, is sure that Atticus has secured an acquittal for his client.

Really?, I inquire.  This was Alabama in the 1930s.  Do you know who got to serve on juries in a place like that, in a time like that?, I ask.  And my daughter gets it.  She knows what rape is.  She knows what racism is.  She knows that truth, and justice, are sometimes sacrificed to ignorance and hatred.

Those are good lessons for a Vermont kid to learn.  She's a white kid, in a mostly white state, who has now heard a novel written by a white women that is mostly about white people.  Others will teach her what it's like to be a victim of racism.

That all-white jury in Alabama does indeed consign poor Tom Robinson to his death.  But they take longer than expected to do it - and, because Atticus Finch knows he has made the jury think a little, he sees reason for hope.

Sadly, I am no Atticus Finch, if only because Norwich, Vermont in 2011 hides its contradictions much better than the fictitious Maycomb, Alabama did in 1935.  But our world is a perilous one, and my daughter may some day find herself challenged as Harper Lee's characters were.  When that day comes, I hope she'll remember To Kill a Mockingbird, in the sound of her dad's voice.

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