My heart hurts today with the death of Harper Lee. She was a woman who has impacted my life in ways that I can’t fully explain.
It’s not just that I read and loved her novel To Kill a Mockingbird as a young woman. It’s that I was given the gift of teaching it for many years, and in doing so, I witnessed my students’ growth as readers and thinkers. As a teacher, there is really no better gift than that. It is immeasurable. I am so grateful to Ms. Lee for this gift.
Though I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman, her second published novel, I have mixed feelings of what surrounds it. I pray that its publishing is what she really wanted. As I understand it, it was a very rough draft of what ultimately became Mockingbird, so to view it as a sequel isn’t quite accurate.
My heart embraces To Kill a Mockingbird alone as her legacy.
I’d like to share from a post I wrote a couple years ago about the experience of Ms. Lee writing me and my students. I think she’d love being remembered this way. I know I do.
The Day Harper Lee Wrote Back
(An excerpt from a post originally published January 3, 2014.)
Back when I taught high school English, my freshman class read To Kill a Mockingbird as one of our core novels. I loved that book as a student, and I treasured it as a teacher. So many layers to explore and think about all delivered in a wonderfully descriptive and even suspenseful way. There was no greater joy for me as a teacher than to see a student come alive within the pages of a book, and Ms. Lee’s one and only published novel kindled that time and again.
One of the activities that we did after reading it was to send notes to Harper Lee. The first time I did this and told the kids we were really going to send the letters, they were stunned. Really? In junior high they did the activity frequently, and it was just for “pretend,” as they called it. I told them why wouldn’t we send them when she is still around to receive them? This made them take their own words a little more seriously. A real author–one whose work many had grown to care for–would be reading it, after all!
I showed them all how I put their letters into a big manila envelope and addressed it to Harper Lee in care of her literary agent. Since she was a recluse, this was the best I could do. I asked the agency to kindly forward the letters to the author.
The first year’s letter writing experience had been positive enough that I did it again the next year, with much the same response from the students. As a teacher, it was satisfying to know that the kids realized their words were being delivered. It mattered.
I just didn’t know it mattered to Ms. Lee, too.
One day, a few weeks after the second batch of letters had been sent, I went to my teacher’s mailbox. Inside was an envelope the size of a thank you card, and I could see that the return address had “Monroeville, AL” written on it. My hands started to tremble. Was it possible that one of the nation’s great authors had written back to us?
Why, yes. Yes she did.
Dear Ms. Ancona:
Thank you for your most kind letter and its enclosures! I am delighted to receive the reactions of the kids who are made to read To Kill a Mockingbird, and venture to think that it must have been a more pleasant experience than was mine when I was made to read Ivanhoe in school. Come to think of it, though, the two novels have threads of the same theme running through them—I’d investigate further but I don’t want to read either book again!
Please thank your students for me and explain to them that it’s impossible for me to answer their letters, but be assured that I read each one with great care and enjoyment.
Happy New Year to all of you!
Sincerely, Harper Lee
I couldn’t believe it. How kind she was to let my students (and me!) know that she had read every letter with “great care and enjoyment.” My students were giddy with excitement–and it’s not often you see 14-year-olds giddy about anything. It was a tremendous validation for them–and for me as an educator. Words matter. Thought matters. Kindness matters.
I hope my former students think back on that experience with joy. I know I do. Ms. Lee’s letter still graces my office and makes me smile every time I see it.
17 years ago Harper Lee wished me and my students a Happy New Year. How cool is that?
“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.” ~Atticus Finch