Friday, July 30, 2010

Mr. Arthur Radley

Soldiers, fire fighters, police officers--all those who fight for the rest of us when we cannot fight ourselves--undergo extensive training. They build their bodies to endure. They prepare their minds as best they can for the emergencies and traumas they will face. They become a brother and sisterhood so that they can defend and protect even when their own lives are in danger. Surely such training guarantees courage when the time for courage arrives.

But alas, training alone does not instill courage. Sometimes the most physically fit, agile, and resourceful individuals will stand in place and holler like little girls when real danger steals safety from beneath their feet. Some never find the courage to stand for another as Atticus did. Some never cast fear into the depths and look upon another day with hope as Miss Maudie did. Some of us will not find the courage to try one day after another to become stronger and more whole as Mrs. Dubose did, and some will never rush into a burning building to save a lifetime of possessions as Mr. Avery did.

Some will recoil from harm as Boo Radley did. Once a mischievous teen whose worst act was tipping over an outhouse on Halloween night, he became a pale recluse, hidden from view, the topic of gossip and conjecture until so much time had passed that he was virtually a ghost, nothing more than a memory except in the fantasies of children. There he loomed as a malignant spirit on the prowl at night.

Boo was not in training all those years, yet he became the hero when Fate called a hero. He saved Scout and Jem by killing Bob Ewell, a predator who lacked the courage to strike straight on, face to face, at his enemies. He could only trail children through the woods at night, and in striking them down, he tried to bring down his real target, Atticus.

Mr. Arthur Radley—Boo—wore no uniform and had no formal training. Still, he had the courage of soldiers, fire fighters, and police officers. He did not hesitate when someone—anyone—was needed to save the children. He stepped in harm’s way and protected those who could not protect themselves.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Miss Maudie's Courage

On an icy night, rare in Maycomb, Alabama, Miss Maudie’s house burns down during an era when fire departments did not have today's modern efficiency or efficacy. One proof is the danger that Miss Maudie’s home presents to other homes. In fact, even though Miss Maudie Atkinson’s home is across the street from Atticus Finch’s, the family—indeed all the families nearby—must evacuate because the night wind may carry a spark. In those days, when fewer corners were equipped with fire plugs to access water supplies and fewer building materials were resistant to fire, entire neighborhoods could become ash by morning.

As Miss Maudie’s house burns, Scout and Mr. Avery fret about property. Scout worries that her copy of a Tom Swift book, borrowed from Dill, will burn. Jem reassures her by directing her attention to Atticus who stands with his neighbors, his attention away from his own home. Jem tells Scout that “it ain’t time to worry yet” and thus, Atticus serves again as a model for courage: remaining calm in the face of catastrophe.

Mr. Avery is less calm. He rushes into Miss Maudie’s burning house to save what he can. He pushes a mattress and furniture out a second-story window, one that proves too small for Mr. Avery’s girth when the men below finally convince him to flee. Scout buries her face in her hands until Jem, keeping watch for both of them, tells her that Mr. Avery is safe. Scout looks up to see him coming across the front porch.

As Scout continues to watch Miss Maudie’s house burn, someone tenderly drapes a blanket over her shoulders to help her stay warm. That someone is, of course, the dreaded neighbor, Boo Radley, a gentle recluse whom the children fear beyond all reason. They have only heard the town tale about Boo stabbing his daddy in the leg with a pair of scissors; they conclude that Boo is some sort of monster—except that he is not.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, Jem confesses to all the kindnesses that Boo has done them: the soap dolls sculpted to resemble Jem and Miss Jean Louise, the school medal, and his pants, mended and neatly folded, draped across the fence that Jem, Dill and Scout ignored to enter the Radley yard uninvited. Jem explodes with his newly acquired understanding that Boo is not a threat, only a neighbor. Jem will not fully appreciate this truth until Boo saves his life, proving that he has courage of his own.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, she reveals her own brand of courage, one that many of us could emulate. Miss Maudie refuses to feel sorry for herself because she lost a home. By morning, after a night alone with her thoughts, Miss Maudie emerges with smiles and laughter and plans for a smaller home, more azaleas, more for her rivals to envy. She views her loss as an opportunity, not an insurmountable hurdle. She has faith in herself and a belief in a brighter future—not unlike any man or woman in uniform.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Courage of Atticus

Of course, Atticus is courageous. He may not rush into burning buildings, protect a neighborhood, or wear a uniform, but he risks everything to stand for a principle: justice.

As a lawyer, Atticus accepts a case that most attorneys would refuse, or if court-appointed to defend Robinson, would put up no real defense, accepting the foregone conclusion that the word of a white man, even a trashy, drunken, abusive white man, trumps the word of a black man, even a respectable, hard-working black man. Atticus appeals to the jurists’ consciences when he proves that Tom Robinson is not guilty and urges them to do their true duty by sending Tom home to his family rather than to prison in order to maintain the social divide. Atticus asks the jurists to oppose segregation and its own brand of incarceration by finding for the truth. And Atticus does all this at considerable risk to himself.

First, Atticus is not only an attorney, he is also an elected State representative. His defense of Tom Robinson could result in not being returned to office in the next election, and many men without his character would have put his own re-election far ahead of any concern for Robinson. Today, pollsters and handlers would have stood between Atticus and Judge Taylor, who asked Atticus to defend Robinson. Those campaign workers would have determined that taking part in a controversial trial would cost Atticus votes so they would have asked or even ordered Atticus not to take the Judge’s calls. But Atticus is a man apart from the ordinary politician of today. He stands for truth and justice, a stance that is often unpopular in the court of public opinion.

Second, Atticus is a parent. He must consider the impact of his actions on Jem and Scout, and he does. He tells Judge Taylor that he will defend Tom Robinson, and later he tells his children that “if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again.” Atticus means that he must stand for truth and justice, especially when the price for doing so may be very high, so that he can be a worthy parent and citizen.

Of course, Atticus did not foresee that Scout would fight with kids in the schoolyard, and he certainly could not have guessed that Mrs. Dubose would taunt Jem into slaughtering her camellias. He probably knew how his sister, Alexandra, would react, and he anticipated “some high talk” around town, but Jem’s permanently disfigured arm was something that a man like Atticus would never imagine. He had no idea that Bob Ewell would attack Scout and Jem after being exposed in a court of law as a liar and racist. Atticus dismissed Bob Ewell as impotent, capable of beating his own daughter or spitting on his enemy and nothing more. Atticus did not realize that he had stripped Bob Ewell naked and left him with nothing except the accident of birth: Ewell was born a white man and that was all he had on his resumé. He was also a coward who struck only those unable to defend themselves.

Third, Atticus is a lawyer who expects the courtroom to be as blind to race as the sculpted, blindfolded Lady Justice; Harper Lee’s Atticus would surely grieve if he were to discover that race is still a factor in courts across the land. He demands more of human beings, especially himself. He argued that an eye witness account should be required if a man’s life is at stake, especially in “he said-she said” cases such as Tom Robinson’s. Judges and juries should set a higher standard for evidence if a man could die as a result of charges being brought against him. Atticus would, no doubt, approve measures implemented to insure that truth and justice win the day, even if more remains to be done. He might be gratified to learn that DNA evidence has become the gold standard in rape trials, but he might be surprised to learn how unreliable eyewitnesses are.

Above all, Atticus is a man who refuses to resign himself to the status quo. He might say that precedent and prejudice are insufficient. Men must be willing to fight for moral principles, and they must find the courage to do so.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Teaching Jem a Lesson: Mrs. Dubose

After Jem loses his temper, more characteristic of the still young, impulsive Scout than of Jem, he destroys Mrs. Dubose’s camellias, the second official State flower of Alabama, ratified as such in 1959. As a punishment for destroying private property, Atticus condemns Jem to read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon even if she falls asleep, her mouth slack, drool pooling at its edges. Today’s parent might cry way harsh, but Atticus had a lesson to teach Jem. He wanted Jem to understand that being able to play football for the Methodists or fighting back against ugly, racist taunts or being the surest shot in Maycomb country have nothing to do with courage. None of those feats truly represents the act of being brave.

Atticus wanted Jem to know that “… real courage is … when you know 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.” He used Mrs. Dubose, a racist, reprehensible figure, to teach Jem that lesson because Mrs. Dubose was more than an old woman afflicted with the disease of racism; she was also a morphine addict who wanted to die drug-free.

Atticus made Jem bear witness to Mrs. Dubose’s struggle just as Steven Spielberg gave us Saving Private Ryan and Amistad and Schindler’s List and The Pacific, inviting us to bear witness to the courage that Atticus had in mind. Those men assigned to hit the beaches in France or hold the ground on islands in the Pacific knew they could be “licked” before they began; they knew that the odds were against them, that many would not survive the day, but they began anyway.

Michael Shaara understood this brand of courage when he wrote The Killer Angels, an account of the battle at Gettysburg where, on July 3rd, General Lee sent Confederates across open ground on an assault against Union soldiers dug in on higher ground, behind a low rock wall. In other words, the Rebels had no cover and faced a fortified enemy, yet they marched on, according to command, in the conviction that some would survive and perhaps in the hope that some would even triumph. In fact, some 7,000 men and untold horses, in both blue and gray, were cut down that day in 1863. They marched on anyway.

Hundreds of thousands died in 1944 in a World War II surge to push the Germans back and out of France. For D-Day, the men dropped from planes, splashed through the surf, and pressed on regardless of the bunkers, guns, and odds. They marched to put an end to oppression.

No wonder that soldier is often the first example offered when the topic is courage. They do their duty in spite of any doubts they may have and in the face of life and death struggles. They deserve our thoughts and our gratitude. They take care of our most unpleasant tasks, and they do it well.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Real Courage

For many years, I taught sophomores in high school. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books to teach, and I looked forward to sharing it with students every year. Fifteen and sixteen year old students could still identify with Jem, Scout and Dill’s fears about Boo Radley. They remembered when they too feared monsters under the bed or around the corner, and they could appreciate the truth that unfolds in the end: sometimes, real dangers come dressed as the neighbors. That was indeed the case when Jem witnessed the destructive nature of intolerance and racism.

After we shared the novel and its inspirational messages about courage and conviction, I asked students to write about a modern-day Atticus, someone who is an extraordinary role model for others. I was always disheartened to read about celebrities and famous people, many of whom had not led an exemplary life. When I asked my students to reconsider, they countered that those celebrities demonstrated courage by admitting to their faults, by simply showing up in spite of being criticized and even condemned.

I had to admit that my students had a point. Sometimes simply getting out of bed and showing up require everything we have to give. I know that, but I wanted my students to demand more of themselves by demanding more of adults, including celebrities. I wanted them to believe that the man next door could be a fine role model because he tries to do his best every moment of his life. I wanted them to recognize beauty and goodness within ordinary people.

Most of us will never drive by just after a driver has run his car off the road into frigid water. We will not have to choose between dialing 9-1-1 before driving on or risking our lives to save the driver of the sinking car. We will never pass by a burning building, forced to face down our fears of fire to respond to cries for help. Most of us will not serve in our nation’s military, become policemen and women or firefighters. Indeed, most of us will never be tested in a life or death scenario, but does that mean few of us are truly brave?

No, ordinary people, like that GI in 1945, can simply do the right thing in the right moment and be transformed into a hero remembered for the ages—at least in the heart of one other person and that is what I hoped my students would take from To Kill a Mockingbird.

We rely upon others to perform the necessary, but unpleasant acts that society needs done. As Miss Maudie says to Jem, “some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us... your father is one of them.” So are soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, mothers, fathers, and ordinary citizens. Their stories may never be told in a prize-winning novel, in Reader’s Digest’s regular feature entitled “Heroes,” or on the nightly news; they may never be the family on Extreme Makeover, and they may never enjoy a ceremony held in their honor, but they deserve acclaim nevertheless.