Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Song of the Mockingbird and Other Things that Haunt this Teacher/Priest's Soul

Every morning I choose to do something for the common good.  I am an English teacher by choice, instead of vocation.  I was supposed to finish last year after 10 years of teaching, but I stayed on for a bit longer with a toe in the door.  Instead of fully leaving Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School after four years there, at the end of last year I chose in coordination with the Head of School to stay on and teach one class and do chapels on Wednesdays.  So every morning from 8:20 till 10 a.m. I work on writing and reading with a gathering of students and supposedly guide them through 8th Grade Honors English.

I love working on writing with the students, but my real passion is for stories.  A good book can change a life, and a good life can change the world.  I weave magic every morning, sharing words of passion and heartbreak, violence and justice, love and forgiveness.

The last few weeks have been hard for me as I have wrestled with my students, all of them African-American and me a white Anglo male.  The privilege and class disparities are never far from my mind.  I have choices in my life, both for myself and my children.  One of the reasons I feel so passionately about my school and the work we are doing is that we are trying to create choices for these students.  The cycle of the same-ol', same-ol' does not have to be.  Our recent wrestling has been to finish one of my favorite books before people start heading out for Christmas break.  We are going to make it, but we are cutting it close.  We only have a a few score pages left and we will have completed To Kill a Mockingbird, and every time I read it I feel like it reads me.  It is one of the few books I know that gets better with every devouring.  It is filled with truth, both for the time it represents and for us as well.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead.  If you have not read To Kill A Mockingbird, for God's sake stop reading this and go pick it up right now.]  This morning we read of Tom Robinson's death in our time together, and how Scout had to keep on a happy face like a "lady," while the women's Missionary Circle was gathered in her home.   Later, Mr. B.B. Underwood, editor of the The Maycomb Tribune, wrote an editorial about the event of Tom's death at the prison while he was trying to climb the fence. 

Mr. Underwood did not talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand.  Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping.  He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted...(p. 323)
This is an echo, of course of earlier in the book, when Scout and Jem received air rifles from their uncle.
Atticus said to Jem one day, "I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Ms. Maudie about it.  "You're father's right," she said, "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don't eat up people's gardens or put nests in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
As I pondered that today in my class full of children, I could not help but think about the headlines of the recent weeks.  Ferguson and New York, neither one in the supposed "racist South," have erupted, and we are still in the midst of riots and some looting around the country.  Berkeley, California getting the most headlines lately.  I ponder this story set in 1935, and I get queasy thinking that it is 2014.  Have we gone so little ways down this road in so long a time?  I think of the mockingbird, and its song.  I hear the cries from the protests, and I have to ask myself if they are not one and the same.

Perhaps the cry of the mockingbird, and the shocking push back of race, class and privilege, is no longer pleasing to us, but rather a song we need to hear.  "Black lives matter.  Black lives matter.  Black lives matter."

As we love each other through this time and these events, and as people of privilege let go of the fear and perhaps listen to those crying out, I believe that things can and will be better.  That is my prayer, as well as my hope.  We all can and must do what we can to take a collective sigh, a moment of grace, and make the future a better and brighter place.

Riding from school to church today, Sting's haunting lyric from the song Fragile has stayed with me, circling my brain like another cry of the mockingbird.

     Perhaps this final act was meant, 

     To clinch a lifetime's argument
     That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

     For all those born beneath an angry star
     Lest we forget how fragile we are

During this season of hope, and in the true spirit of Advent (The Arrival), may we all draw closer to one another and what we hold dear, lest we forget how fragile we are.

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Blessings, Rock