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Michael Lawrence-Riddell: A teacher's voice 

  • Michael Lawrence Riddell teaches English at JFK Middle School in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Michael Lawrence Riddell teaches English at JFK Middle School in Northampton.

  • Michael Lawrence Riddell teaches English at JFK Middle School in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

I have probably read “To Kill a Mockingbird” 15 times. Invariably, each time I read it I am Jem Finch. I find myself believing that this is the time that the jury will get it right. This time they have to listen to Atticus.

I know what is coming, but in the pages leading up to the verdict, I am absolutely slayed by Harper Lee’s storytelling, rendered a tear-streaked innocent who has watched the world reveal its ugly nature. But just as quickly I am lifted up by the resilience of humanity as it populates the pages of Lee’s masterpiece.

That is the magic of this particular book, yet it is also the magic of literature in general: It has the ability to hold up a looking glass to our world, our history and our lives and let us see the reflection through new eyes. Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” make me absolutely, passionately love my job teaching English to middle school students.

Eighth grade, 1989, was the year that I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was also the year that my innocence and my understanding of the world were shattered — just like Jem’s.

That year a good friend of mine was assaulted on the Amherst Town Common during the spring fair. He was assaulted because he was black — attacked physically and verbally with the most vitriolic and hateful language I have ever heard.

He was standing there, enjoying the fair, when his assailant, a high school student, slid down a hill, colliding with him and dislocating his kneecap. The physical assault was followed by a hate-filled racist diatribe that shattered my heart. It woke me up to the fact that ugliness can rear its head anywhere, even in Amherst.

Afterward, I was called “nigger-lover” on multiple occasions by the buddies of the student who assaulted my friend. They told him to “Go back to Africa” and also used the “n-word” repeatedly.

I believe this experience is one reason why I have always loved “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

There is a great line in the book when Scout asks her father, “You aren’t really a nigger-lover...are you?” Atticus replies that he certainly is, and tells Scout that he tries his best to love everyone. For obvious reasons, that scene has always resonated with me.

The ugly incident on the Amherst Town Common changed me, and defined a mission: seeking and teaching justice, responding to hate from a foundation of love. I would not have been prepared for that mission if not for my family and the excellent teachers who instilled in me the idea that I could effect change.

There was fallout from this incident — students organized a walk-out and march on downtown Amherst. In the aftermath, we read and discussed “To Kill a Mockingbird” in English class. It gave the 14-year-old me hope that a world could be built where people are not assaulted just because of the color of their skin.

Now, nearly 24 years later, the power of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is even clearer to me as I watch my students engage in conversations about the complex, frustrating and inspirational concepts the book brings up.

Teaching this book to eighth-graders is not easy. Some of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, and it deals with the base side of humanity. As Atticus tells Jem in the film adaptation, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.”

Young people need to encounter the ugliness of the world and discuss and understand it in a safe space. “To Kill a Mockingbird” allows students the kind of space they need to do that. A prime example is the discussions my students have had about the history and cultural meaning of the “n-word,” which has been described as “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.”

This is a word that the younger generation has become somewhat desensitized to — it crops up in music and popular culture. But for many of our students it is not a word (thankfully) that they have heard used with hatred. Reading, writing about and discussing “To Kill a Mockingbird” allows them to consider and understand this word in new ways. These are conversations that need to be happening.

At its core “Mockingbird” is about courage and the love that’s required to act courageously, in ways large and small. “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand,” Atticus says. “It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

In a world with daily reminders of the consequences of violence and hate, our students need this book and books like it so that they are prepared to respond with courage, love and beauty.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell has taught seventh- and eighth-grade English language arts at Amherst Regional Middle School for the past four years. Prior to that, he taught mathematics there for 2½ years. He lives in Florence with his wife and two children.

Lawrence-Riddell will lead a discussion on “To Kill a Mockingbird” March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Jones Library in Amherst. This program is part of the Books Into Films Series co-sponsored by the Jones Library and the Amherst Cinema. “To Kill a Mockingbird” will screen at the Amherst Cinema March 19 at 7 p.m.

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