‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still sings to students

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” passed being just another novel when it appeared as a Cliff’s Notes booklet.

That’s when you know that millions of American students are called on to read the book, helping it become a touchstone story in an expanding, media-saturated world.

The novel has been elevated into the U.S. literary canon, morphed into an American myth and gained millions of fans around the world. Voters in a 2011 BBC poll picked this story set in the small-town South as the best-loved book in the United Kingdom. The American embassy in Moscow included the movie based on the book in an international teaching course it sponsored called “American Values in Film.”

There is something about the book that still speaks loudly.

When Woodstock High School media specialist Pati Olton picked up the book at age 10, it was love at first chapter. So much so that Olton ended up years later naming her daughter Scout, same as Lee’s heroine.

What’s so special about “Mockingbird?”

“I think on a real basic level, it is the best and worst of humanity that you see reflected in the eyes of a child, and filtered through her experiences. And what comes out of her mouth is absolutely amazing,” the Cherokee County educator said.

Scout experiences the world with its prejudice and lack of fairness and justice, yet sees heroism when her father, a lawyer, gets appointed to defend a black man being tried for the rape of a white girl.

Olton’s colleague, English teacher Andy Hall, said Americans love the book because it reflects what we want to believe about ourselves: the validation for heroically standing up for what’s right, even if you are doing so alone. And readers relate to Scout’s learning right from wrong, reality from appearance as she navigates her little world. The story has maintained currency.

“In a world where we are still in the midst of a lot of racial issues and tension, the story renews itself constantly,” Hall said. “Here we are in 2015, and we are talking about a black defendants in the news who are in the justice system. And it looks like a lot of people could say, hey, that looks like what is happening today.”

Julie H. Rucker, the president of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English, has used portions of the book to teach rhetoric or encourage discussion of issues such as diversity.

Earlier this year, her school brought in a stage production of the story.

“And there were moments in the play, like the courtroom scene when they knew (the defendant) was innocent of the crime, at the same time they couldn’t believe what was happening and how people were treating him. And you could hear the hush in the room and could hear the kids responding, and it really spoke to them even today. They could connect to the issues that were presented to them on stage. They understood what unfairness is.”