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.