Shock and Horror: Ohio School Kills “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Some of you may have read my previous post about the soldier in Iraq who emailed me to ask whether I’d inscribe one of my books for his girlfriend on her birthday. “Sure,” I said. He sent me the book, a book by another Lee Martin, and I looked up that fine gentleman on the Internet, found his web site, and sent him an email to explain the situation. I sent the book along with the SASE that would deliver the signed copy back to the soldier so he could present it to his girlfriend, and the other Lee Martin was kind enough to take care of things from there.

End of story, right? Um. . .not exactly.

My correspondence got my email into the other Lee Martin’s address book, and now it appears that someone has hacked into that book and has sent a message to everyone in it,

So for the record, let me make it clear that I wasn’t in London on a short vacation, and I didn’t get mugged in the park near the hotel where I wasn’t staying. My cash, credit cards, and cell phone are all still in my possession. Yes, I still have my passport with me, but it too is safe here at my home and isn’t in London, where I’m not talking with the embassy or the police. I don’t have a flight that leaves three hours from now. I don’t have an issue with the hotel that’s demanding payment. I don’t need you to wire me money. Above all, I am not “freaked out at the moment.”

Well, at least not about any of that.

But there was an item in yesterday’s newspaper that got under my skin a little. Seems that a high school in southeastern Ohio was to host a performance by a traveling theatre troupe, a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. The performance was canceled because it was deemed inappropriate for the students to see. Why? The N-word. Seems parents were complaining, so the school officials decided it was better that their students not be exposed to this tale of racial injustice in the South in 1935, this story of the attorney Atticus Finch and his efforts to defend Tom Robinson’s innocence (“In the name of God,” Atticus exhorts the jury in his closing argument, “do your duty.”)

Without a doubt, the word in question is ugly and hurtful, and, as a white man, I certainly can’t claim to know the pain a person of color suffers because of it. I wonder, though, if, like the jury in the novel,  it’s our duty to attend to that word and all it so unfairly represents, particularly when it comes to us as part of a piece of literature that intends to expose and then condemn the racism that victimized Tom Robinson and continues to victimize far too many of our citizens. I wonder how many students at that Ohio high school will now somehow be less because they didn’t see that performance and didn’t experience the consciousness-raising that it attempts. Art at its best can take the ugly and use it to create something beautiful. Something that lasts. It can make people who open their hearts and minds to it better. It can make our society better. Every time I see the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, I wait for the scene in which Gregory Peck as Atticus leaves the courtroom after the jury has turned a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence and declared Tom Robinson guilty. The black members of the community are in the balcony of the courtroom, put there by the custom of the time and place, and none of them have left. They wait as Atticus gathers his papers into his briefcase, and as he starts up the center aisle to the courtroom doors, one by one the people in the balcony begin to stand, to pay their respect for this man who has fought the good fight for the sake of Tom Robinson and by extension for all of them. Atticus’s children, Jean Louise (aka Scout) and Jem, and their friend Dill are in the balcony, invited there by the Reverend Sykes.

At this moment in the novel, Scout says,

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

Even now, typing that passage, I feel the chill up the back of my neck. Every time I see this scene in the movie, the same thing happens. I want to be Atticus Finch. I want to be as good and as noble as he is. I want to live better, be a better person. It is, for me, a spiritual moment, one that I need to revisit from time to time.

I’m sad that the racial situation in our country is still such that the use of that word, even within the historical and artful context that Harper Lee provides, is so volatile. More than that, I’m devastated that those students at that school didn’t have the chance to see the scene that I describe above, didn’t have the chance to experience this work of art that asks us to consider how to treat one another with fairness and dignity and love. I can only hope that they’ll encounter the book, the movie, or the play at some other time in their lives, some time when it’s not too late to still make a difference.

A friend tells me that this school that denied their students the chance to see this production is in the same county where recently eight horses died in a barn fire, a fire that was deliberately set as part of an anti-gay hate crime. I don’t believe I need to point out the irony here. I’ll say it again: Art can change us; it can make us better.


  1. Lee Martin on May 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Here’s the link to the scene from the movie that I mention in this post:

  2. jessica handler on May 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Fools jump in, it seems, in the case of these Ohio parents. G-d forbid they should have to tell their children about history. Those who don’t remember the past, &c.

    I used the “stand up, Scout…” quote in my father’s eulogy, for all the reasons that Harper Lee wrote it in the first place.

    • Lee Martin on May 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      Thanks for the response, Jessica. I particularly like your “G-d forbid” comment.

  3. John Zulovitz on May 16, 2011 at 4:30 am

    What a heartbreaking article. A real and tangible sadness lies in its lines. To think that people can be so willfully ignorant. Do the parents of that school realize what they denied their children?

    On a personal note…

    One evening last summer, my nephew looked at me and asked, “When something seems too hard, why don’t people just give up?” This was not the first question of depth he’d asked me all those months ago; more had preceded it.

    At the time, and though he was only nine, I had noticed that my nephew had begun to consider the world in a way that was quite mature for a child. Much the same had started to occur to me when I was the same age. For me, the catalyst had been my father’s death. He had been ill for some time. One day he was there; the next, gone.

    I had questions. Lots of them. Yet, I had no idea where the answers could be found. And then, I started discovering them — not answers per se, but rather information which allowed me the opportunity to begin to work through my own confusion and grief; to realize that there is no single “answer” really, but more a sense of drawing one’s own conclusions about something.

    For me, the saving grace arrived in the form of books and motion pictures. Both gave me the privilege of considering the world in which I lived from a perspective that was not specifically my own. They helped in abating my loneliness; they provided me not only pleasure, but instruction as well. As a result, I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.

    Recalling my younger self and how vast and enigmatic the world had seemed to me at so young an age (though, even as an adult, it persists), and recalling also the tools which had helped me through those difficult transitions, I started watching with my nephew films whose stories I thought he might find helpful, instructive, and reassuring.

    There are two more questions that I recall my nephew asking me last summer: “Why does evil exist?” And: “Are there more good people in the world than there are bad people?”

    My answers to my nephew’s questions: “It’s important to do what’s right, even if the situation you’re in seems hopeless. It’s not about being praised; it’s about doing what you must because it is the right thing to do.” “Evil exists so that we may value more all that is good.” “I have faith there are more good people than bad people in the world. ”

    It is often I to whom my nephew comes when such weighty contemplations are upon him. On those occasions when I think the point may be better illustrated, I pull a book from a shelf or pop a DVD into the player.

    So, last summer, when he asked me about the importance of persistence in the face of insurmountable odds, the nature of good and evil, the question of human benevolence, there was a single film and book that I felt would be of the best use to him: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

    Before we watched it, I gave him some background history in regard to segregation and racial prejudice (he had already learned about some of it in school, but wanted more information). I also told him that Ms. Lee’s story was one which never failed to draw emotion from me, and that he shouldn’t be frightened by that. I was thinking primarily of the scene in the gallery when Reverend Sykes tells Scout: “Ms. Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” (Welling tears even now, as I wrote that last sentence.) Dignity, humanity, connection: is there a better example in all of literature or film?

    Long story short, as the credits rolled, my nephew said to me, “That’s probably the greatest story ever.” Following which he asked me if I had the book. “Of course,” I said. He: “Can we read it together?” “Yes.” First, however, he wanted to watch the film again, which we did.

    A few nights later, taking a break from reading, my nephew said, “Are there any other great stories like that?” In answer, I promptly put “The Miracle Worker” in the DVD player. After it ended, my nephew said, “Okay. That’s probably the second greatest story ever.” He looked at me and didn’t even have to ask the question. With a nod, I went upstairs, pulled from a shelf “The Story of My Life,” and gave it to him. He smiled and said, “Thank you!”

    Now, when things get difficult and frustration threatens, my nephew notes that perfection is not the paramount goal — trying, doing one’s best, being the best person one can be: those are the goals. The lessons of which can be gleaned from the lives of Atticus Finch and Annie Sullivan.

    Oh, what a wonderful, memorable summer!

    • Lee Martin on May 16, 2011 at 11:50 am

      John, thank you for that wonderful post. Your nephew is so lucky to have an uncle like you.

  4. Lee Martin on May 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Here’s a link to a wonderful Leonard Pitts, Jr. column that is so applicable to what we’re considering in this story of the high school canceling a performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

    • Karen Shoemaker on May 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      I was just about to look up the link to Leon Pitts’ column, which was in our local paper this morning, as I read your blog. You beat me to the punch.
      Thanks for the original post and the links. Good stuff about a sorry situation.

      • Lee Martin on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 pm

        Hi, Karen! Hope you’re doing well. A strange convergence of things lately–a student essay about his history with racial attitudes, the story of the school canceling that performance, the Pitts column, “Freedom Riders” on PBS tonight. Maybe not a strange convergence but rather a beneficial one.

  5. Byron Edgington on May 16, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    “Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” And if any of us can get past our fears–of blacks, of whites, of gays, of anyone with ‘different’ in their title, we’ll see our world from their point of view and maybe, just maybe, it will be “enough” for us as well. I believe the world does change, moves toward acceptance, but not if we hide ugliness and deny it. In a strange way the refusal of those folks in SE Ohio to expose their children to the “n” word (I refuse to capitalize it) has a way of enabling and shielding those who still use it. It has a way of perpetuating it, prolonging its power. I believe we need to put it in their mouths and show them using it. Maybe they, too, will begin to understand its corrosive power, and how it diminishes them as well.

    • Lee Martin on May 16, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      So nicely put, Byron. Thank you.

  6. Wendy George on May 17, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Hi, Lee,

    Thought you would find this article interesting – Orange High School did put on the play last fall, albeit with some edits. Daniel Watson, the African American student quoted, is my neighbor across the street:

    • Lee Martin on May 17, 2011 at 8:46 am

      Wendy, thanks so much for sharing this. I was particularly heartened to hear of the good dialogue that came from the production.

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