Over the summer I reread To Kill a Mockingbird along with my grandson, Eli. Much as Scout and Jem grew emotionally in the course of the story, so I realized how differently I saw the novel more than fifty years after I first eagerly turned its pages. Even though I was in high school at the time of my first encounter with the tale, I was still quite naive, innocent and filled with ideals. I have seen much and learned much in the five decades that have passed and I suppose that while I still lean toward optimism, I understand that I must admit to a bit of cynicism in judging society’s progress with regard to justice and equality. Like Atticus I see the evil that exists in the world, but I am still convinced that on the whole there is far more good than evil.
Atticus tells his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, an guileless creature undeserving of harm. So too do I believe that it is up to us to protect the young, the weak, the sick and the blameless souls in our midst. I suppose that I was drawn to teaching because I saw it as a way to strengthen our youth by providing them with skills that would allow them to navigate through the contradictory aspects of human nature. It is often difficult to conceive of a world that fosters the gentleness of a Jimmy Carter also spawning the pure evil of an Adolf Hitler, and yet the reality is that we do indeed have the good, the bad and the ugly among us.
It is difficult to know when it is time to introduce our children to the underside of society. As parents and educators we so desire to shield them from unpleasantries. We monitor their friendships and activities. We are careful about the programs that they watch, the language that they hear. Ultimately the time comes when even our best efforts are not enough to shelter them from reality. They will encounter a bully or hear a racist utterance. They will be hurt by unkindness or the blows of violence. They will see things that are foreign to their natures. We will be bereft when we see them hurt. It makes sense to slowly introduce them to certain truths, but it is a balancing act to do so without frightening them, killing their spirits.
I found sharing this powerful book by Harper Lee to be a profound way to touch on topics that were somewhat foreign to my grandson. He understood the concept of bullies. He had seen ugliness at school, but his life has been mostly untouched by even hints of racism. He was curious about a time in history that I had seen firsthand when the black race was treated almost as being inhuman. He listened intently as I spoke of the separate water fountains, bathrooms, schools, neighborhoods that were the norm. It was almost unfathomable to him that such conditions existed and were even embraced by a significant portion of the population. When we read about Tom Robinson, the unfortunate black soul falsely accused of raping a white woman, Eli was certain that the evidence would clear him. He was literally devastated when the final verdict was read. It was an eye opening experience told in such a powerful way in the pages of the remarkable book.
We hear about the parents of black children having “the talk” with them about the dangers that lurk due to a residue of racism that sadly still exists in some quarters. I suggest that each of us needs to have a conversation with our youngsters to discuss the inequities that they may encounter either personally or in others, and to help them to determine how to react when they see such things. Just as Atticus helped to develop a moral foundation in his children, so too must we speak of even difficult things with our kids.
We don’t have to throw everything at them all at once, and often we can use literature or movies or experiences to convey the important information that we want them to learn. We have to be willing to take the time needed to allow for questions that might be difficult to answer. Above all we must be honest and gentle. It is far better for our children to learn about injustice, inequality, trust, loyalty and values from us than from a tragic incident that may rock their sense of security and confidence. We can slowly build up their principles and their knowledge of the world without frightening them in the process.
Our best method is to be like Atticus, adults who model what it means to have unimpeachable character. We must always remember the maxim that what people believe is what they do, not what they say. Our children are monitoring our every move and imitating the behaviors that we model. They will learn as much just from seeing us interact with our fellow humans from day to day as they will from listening to our advice.
Guiding our children to be unprejudiced, just, and kind is hard work, but in making the effort to be good examples we ourselves grow and become better people. When we realize that those little eyes are constantly looking to us we try harder, simply because we love them and want the best for them. We don’t have to be perfect. Our kids will learn as much from our admission of mistakes as from our best moments.
Senator John McCain died shortly after I had finished To Kill a Mockingbird with Eli. Somehow I found myself thinking about his life and how he had shown us all how to live. Then I read his final letter and I was as moved by his words as I had been by Atticus Finch. In that letter are all of the elements of a life well lived, so herewith is his message to us all:
My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I’ve often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it.
I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships enough for ten satisfying lives and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets but I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else’s. I owe the satisfaction to the love of my family. One man has never had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America to be connected with America’s causes, liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime that life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.
Fellow Americans, that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates.
But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still. Do not despair of our present difficulties, we believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history. Farewell fellow Americans. God bless you and god bless America.
Consider sharing this letter with you middle schoolers or high schoolers. I think that they will understand what Senator McCain was trying to say. It will be a great way to begin important dialogues with them.