Most of us teachers strive to impact students in a positive way, but we can never know for sure what the results of our efforts will be – either positive or negative. A few years back, I met a 30-year-old man I had taught when he was a first grader. I am always glad to see my former students all grown up; but this young man, who was about 30 years old, was not excited to see me. His comment was telling: “You changed your hairdo in the middle of the year,” he said without a smile. “I never liked it.”
I enjoy teaching but also I enjoy writing, another endeavor that has great potential for impacting the lives of others. One thing we writers learn: the same words that affect one person in a certain way might have the opposite effect on another person.
When tattoos first became popular during the late 1990s, I wrote an editorial stating how much I disliked them. That column evoked more responses than I ever had from any other column. They were both negative and positive. One reader, in particular, communicated harshly to me in an email, and she used exceptionally poor grammar. I refused to dignify her message with a response; but, oh, how I wanted to reply, “I may be all of those things you called me, but at least I can write a proper sentence.”
While preparing my literature students to spend nine weeks studying “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I recently read a book that made me realize how surprising the results of our human efforts can be. “I Am Scout” by Charles Shields is a biography published in 2008 about the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Alabama’s Harper Lee. Earlier, he also wrote “Mockingbird,” which I have not read.
Of course, I, like most people, knew that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written in 1960 at a time when racism against blacks and segregation was the norm in America, particularly in the South. The plot is about a young girl named Scout who witnessed her lawyer father’s courtroom defense of an innocent black man accused of rape.
Shields’ book reminded me of many things about “To Kill a Mockingbird”:
• It made the “New York Times’ ” and the “Chicago Tribune’s” top-10 bestseller lists within weeks of publication.
• In 1961, Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for her book.
• In its first year, the book sold two-and-a-half million copies.
• In 1962, the movie rights were sold, which led to a highly influential and popular movie of the same name.
• In 1990, the town of Monroeville began staging a play entitled “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (The performance continues to be an annual event there.
• Also, in an article that ran on Sept. 1, 2013, in the “New York Times,” I read that “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” sales are more than 30 million.
The phenomenal impact of “To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be measured.” Not even its author could have envisioned such.
It seems logical that, with this level of success, Lee would have allowed the two books she subsequently wrote to be published. However, for reasons no one is sure of, she did not. Many scholars believe she fears her other books will never achieve the same level of success as her first book. That is sad to me. I think the world would like to read other books by such an astute thinker, even if they did not achieve the same fame.
Lee’s story reminds me that life’s successes or failures have a large impact, on not only others, but also the person who has succeeded or failed. With its universal themes of how wrong racism is and how unfair life sometimes is, Lee’s story inspired the hearts and minds of millions of people.
Wouldn’t it be nice if she allows her books to be published someday, even after her death? Who knows? Maybe she will.
Email Sherry at firstname.lastname@example.org.