When I read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ as a particularly grumpy teen, I didn’t get it. When I read it again on one of the worst days of my prac experience, I finally understood why my high school English teacher loved the story of Scout’s family.
It had been days of verbal abuse, bullying, and drama, and I was already regretting ever considering teaching as a career. The kids were wonderful. My prac teacher had a nasty little habit of terrorising her prac students until they’d quit.
We were ushering the students in for their history class when she dropped her latest bombshell: she’d changed her mind. The lesson I was about to teach was no longer about Ancient Egypt. It was going to be on the Rwandan genocide.
It was my first time teaching the class on my own, and it was my first ever prac. I was terrified. I looked at the notes I’d stayed up late compiling and organising to within an inch of their lives. I looked at the resources I’d painstakingly developed, and the plans I had to make the lesson fun, and realised they were useless. I remember, perfectly, the smug tone to her voice, and the grin that she couldn’t quite hide as she settled the class down, and told them about the lesson. I even remember the way a few of the kids looked worried, and began squirming in their seats, lowering their gaze as though they knew exactly what that tone of voice meant.
I ad-libbed the hell out of the lesson, having never researched or learned much about the genocide, and trying to find engaging ways to talk about the wholesale slaughter of humans that I didn’t know the first thing about. It was painful, and as I struggled to keep calm and get through without crying, my supervising teacher sat grinning in the back of the room. Her voice would ring out, interrupting my efforts, to criticise what I was doing, and how I was going. She joked with the class that I was clearly not cut out for teaching, and maybe McDonald’s had a job opening. My fingers actually creaked with the strain of holding on to the desk in front of me.
She did her damndest to turn a really bad day into a public humiliation, and promptly gave me a brutal dressing-down in the staffroom, complete with flailing theatrics and pantomime like booming voice. Some of the other teachers laughed.
In that moment, what I wanted to do was see if I could hit her hard enough to put a chair through her skull. What I wanted to do was ask what sort of sadistic, worthless fucks see a teenage girl being screamed at by someone in the workplace, and just kick back to watch. What I did was snatch up the nearest book, and go hide for the afternoon. I tried to read the first page of To Kill A Mockingbird about three times before I could stop crying and shaking enough to make sense of the words. And then I read like my life depended on it.
That book went from hated to life-changer on the reading list of my life, and Atticus Finch’s poise and dignity was all that kept me from giving up or being a victim in my dealings with that woman. If Atticus could stand up against entrenched racism in the deep South, I could stand up against entrenched stupidity and bullying in a high school for a few more weeks. And dammit, I could, and would, do it without flinching again.
Harper Lee’s characters taught me a lot about handling my frustrations more gracefully and compassionately, and taught me a hell of a lot about the kinds of bravery in the world. If there’s a book that has changed me for the better, this would be the one.
Vale, Harper Lee. Thank you for seeing me through a truly terrible day.