Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

To Meet Scout, a Worthy Lie

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

To Meet Scout, a Worthy Lie

Article excerpt


It was a terrible sin and I knew it. But Mrs. Russell, our high school librarian and a formidable angel of authority, had a suspicious glint in her blue eyes, a copy of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" in her hand, and a question on her lips.

"Do your parents," she demanded, "know you're reading this?"

Well, the truth was that my parents never knew what I was reading. Not because they didn't care what kind of person I, at 13, was growing into. Not hardly. Like Parris Island drill sergeants, they patrolled my behavior with diligence and instant retribution for any infraction of their strict rules: No lying, which was how I knew it was a terrible sin. No cheating. No stealing. No hurting others. No displays of temper or disrespect for my elders.

But books somehow fell into that narrow territory, along with what time to go to bed, that they figured I could make my own choices about. Perhaps, after firmly instilling such a fundamental set of rights and wrongs in my actions, when it came to using my mind about things, they trusted me.

All of that seemed a bit complicated to explain to Mrs. Russell at this moment of crisis. I had hurried to her domain in search of Harper Lee's classic for a simple, sweet reason. My favorite teacher had suggested it. "You remind me," she said, kindly, "of Scout."

And when Mrs. Russell, no doubt concerned about the book's racial and rape themes, loomed to deny it to me - on a technicality, surely - it seemed unbearable that I not be allowed to answer urgent questions: Who was this Scout? Was she really like me? Was that good or bad?

So I lied. "Do your parents know you're reading this?" I ducked my head, a semi-nod. "Yes, ma'am," I said, respectful to my elder.

And that night, I met Scout, Boo Radley and Atticus Finch and came to understand that it's not always bad to be different, that it's a rare form of courage to defy some cruel social conventions, that it's wrong to mistreat people because of the color of their skin or the quirks of their mental ability. Refinements on my parent's strict rules of behavior.

Mrs. Russell never again challenged me, and over the next four school years, caring thoughtful teachers guided me to scores of other magical books:

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," from which I discovered that even across the most horrible color line of all - slavery - people could defy authority and reach out to each other as friends. …

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