Thursday, August 9, 2012
Watching "To Kill A Mockingbird" With My Son
One of my all time favorite books and movies is "To Kill A Mockingbird." Because of the sensitive subject matter involved, I waited to show this film to my son Benjamin until I thought he was mature enough to watch it.
Something I've learned, especially with old movies, is to just start watching it and let him come in and get caught up in the story (this has worked with "The African Queen" and "Great Expectations"), instead of trying to force him to watch. So, last night, I put in my copy of the movie in our DVD player and just started watching. Sure enough, he came in the room. He stood there for a moment, watching and it wasn't long before he came and sat down next to me on the couch.
Of course what he drew him in immediately was the children, especially Scout, and the narrative of Boo Radley. But as the film progressed, he began to get caught up in the story of racial injustice seen through the eyes of the children. He watched them go from dealing with childish fears, Boo Radley, to real ones, the racism that permeates the town and many of the people around them. The character of Jem also starts to see his father in a different light (going from disappointment that his father won't play football for the Methodists to impressed that his father shoot a gun to pride in his father defending the "colored man" Tom Robinson). As Harper Lee wrote in the book, "It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and never had been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived."
During different points of the film, Benjamin would ask me questions or want to talk about what was going on. At first the questions were related to Boo Radley and, "Do you get to see him?" Then, when Atticus is sitting outside Tom Robinson's jail cell and all the men pull up in cars, wanting to kill Tom, Benjamin worriedly asked, "They're not going to kill Atticus, are they?" He liked how Jem wanted to protect his father and Benjamin told me, "I wouldn't have left you, either." When it came to the trial, he confidently told me, "Atticus will prove Tom's innocent. They won't find him guilty." Then the shock of the "guilty" verdict hit him.
Benjamin didn't say much after the film was over. I knew that he had to process what he had just seen, so I let him. Sure enough, today, Benjamin brought up the movie by talking about Scout at first because he thought she was funny. Slowly he worked his way to the topic of the social injustice and racism that the film so deftly deals with. We talked about not only the racism displayed in the film, but I also told him about the racism of the Depression era South, about what led to the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In talking about how whites treated African Americans back then, Benjamin boasted, "Well, if I had lived back then, I wouldn't have been like that."
"I would hope we wouldn't have been, either," I said, "but it's easier to say that now when you aren't living in those times. It is much harder to take a stand when you're in that moment and all of those around you aren't. Sometimes doing the right thing is not the easy thing. There will be times in your life when doing the right thing means getting shunned by people you might have thought were your friends."
"Just like in the movie," Benjamin said, "How kids at school made fun of Scout and Jem because their dad was defending a black man."
"Exactly. But what Atticus told Scout is a very important lesson that we can all learn from and that's imagining yourself in another person's life, to see things from their point of view."
One thing "To Kill A Mockingbird" always shows me is how to be a better parent. Atticus is calm, patient, and fair. Growing up, I saw this mirrored in my grandfather, Papa Fred, and my Uncle Richard. Both were kind, gentle men who were well thought of by others after they had died. Of my grandfather it was said, "He never spoke an unkind word about anyone." When I overheard this, the words made a very big impression on me as a child. I must admit, I cannot hold to such a claim in my own life, but I strive to be more like that. And I'm trying to raise my son to be the same. I want him to grow up to be a man of good character and integrity. Something I have been more proud of hearing about him in a parent-teacher conference than about his good grades was when the teacher told us that Benjamin had a strong sense of fairness about him, that he always looked out to include others, especially those kids who others left out.
I love a movie like "To Kill A Mockingbird" because it's more than a story, it's a springboard to have such dialogues with my son. One of the important lessons this film gives him, as well as myself, is something Atticus Finch says: "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's 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."