“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.
Since the rumours of Gove’s most recent nail in the educational coffin began to surface on Twitter yesterday, I’ve been trying to translate my utter despair into written word, but my mind has continued to return to the above quote from the great novel at the centre of this story.
The truth is I could, at a push, reel off any of the 50 quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird which I and my classmates toiled to learn by heart for our GCSE English Literature exam almost a decade ago, and every one of them would perfectly reflect the sentiment which I’ve so far struggled to put into my own words.
Michael Gove, fearless captain of the Coalition’s educational warship, is at the centre of fresh outrage after plans were announced to drop classic American novels such as Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer-prizewinner and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the GCSE curriculum – two novels which formed the core of my literary education at the Convent Grammar at the turn of the new millennium. Lee and Steinbeck, though another world away in time and place from the rainy border town in Northern Ireland where I first read their words, spoke to me louder than perhaps any book I had read before or since.
Around the same time, our history teacher was making diplomatic efforts to educate us on the formation and recent history of our little state, staying always just the right side of passivity in her descriptions of IRA bombs and British Army executions, though none of us could curb the smile that threatened to break every time she dropped the ‘London’ prefix when she read aloud about Derry from the textbook. Our year was one of the first to have Citizenship classes wedged into our timetables, designed to educate and enlighten pupils on the religious and sectarian divides that had defined our locality for decades past, and having spent four years at a small village primary school previously, I had already been through enough cross-community efforts to learn the fundamental lesson these classes aimed at: Protestants are people too.
With a history teacher and embittered socialist for parents I was never at any risk of becoming prejudiced or intolerant but still, I can’t begin to imagine what other person I might have become had I not read To Kill a Mockingbird when I did.
I had reached an age of consciousness and there was a gap to be filled. My cousin and I had grown up touring Kilmainham Gaol and watching ‘Michael Collins’, our young minds had swam with the romance of glorified nationalism as we played at revolutionaries in the open fields around our homes. But now I saw the futility of schoolboys writing ‘IRA’ in the steam of bus windows and since I had become aware of the exposed corruption of the Catholic Church I could no longer humour the fantastical stories and self-righteous beliefs offered with an open palm at mass on Sundays. Those things that had seemed such an ingrained part of life just years before had been diminished, the romantic shine had worn off them, and had left a kind of vacuum waiting to be filled by something worth believing in.
Had Harper Lee’s words not echoed so profoundly in that void I dread think what else might have filled it.
To Kill a Mockingbird became my bible. Through Scout’s young eyes I formed my vision of justice, learnt the meaning and importance of morality, bravery and respect. Despite all the efforts of my own environment, my parents, my teachers – it was Atticus Finch, and Harper Lee, who made me suddenly, truly conscious of the injustice and inequality of the world I lived in. I have never really considered Lee to be one of the founding influences of my being a feminist but now it seems impossible to ignore the significance of Scout or Mayella or Calpurnia on my young mind.
To anyone has so far not had the pleasure of reading To Kill a Mockingbird all this might seem a little over-dramatic but everyone has that book, or film, or album or place, that speaks to them in a way that no other thing, man-made or natural, ever can. For me, it is this book.
And the thought that hundreds of thousands of young adults might leave school without the benefit of having read it, is to me an absolute tragedy.
The school curriculum did not teach me how to write a CV or vote or budget or understand taxes, and of the things it did strive to teach me I couldn’t tell you anything now of Pythagoras’ Theorem or French verb conjugations or exothermic and endothermic reactions – though oddly I’ve never forgotten that stalactites go down and stalagmites go up. But when I left school to study literature at the University of Liverpool it was in no small part because of Harper Lee.
Harper Lee who taught me to stand up for those who are too afraid to stand up for themselves, who taught me to be angry with the injustices of the world even if they do not affect me directly, who taught me the importance of compassion and kindness better than any priest or RE teacher.
Now, working for The Reader Organisation I hope to instil a love of reading and of great literature in those who need it most – the vulnerable, downtrodden, forgotten – those who have already suffered enough injustice at the hands of government cuts and reforms. In my work I hope not just to inspire a love of books as a hobby or pastime but as a portal to discovery and understanding, the thing that books became for me so naturally, so fortunately, as a child, but that others have been denied for one reason or another by their upbringing, or school, or community, and ultimately by the government.
This Coalition Government have already cut libraries, banned books from being sent to prisoners and now they are attempting to withdraw two of the greatest, most inspiring novels ever written from the school curriculum in favour, they say, of ‘Brit Lit’ – an interesting choice of words considering today’s headlines lamenting the electoral success of the nationalistic, racist, xenophobic and sexist UKIP. Gove narrowing the literary spectrum just as Farage narrows the political one. This is no tenuous link. It is an ominous reflection of the way things are and frankly, it’s terrifying.