Graduation gowns, shotgun shells and Boo Radley’s porch

One of the great moments in literature is the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I know you may be all TKAM’d out, with Harper Lee dying and the back and forth over Go Set a Watchman, and how you had to read it in eighth grade, then a year later in high school. But hear me out.

I’ve been thinking about it lately, not only with Lee’s death and the fact that so much of the book has an impact on my own writing both big and small, but also because of the political and social climate today and how it fits in with what I always considered the biggest lesson of the book.FullSizeRender (17)

The obvious themes, particularly the simplistic yet effective 1960s-white-folks approach to prejudice, the coming of age tale, that freshman English stuff, aren’t the things that make the book great.

What makes it great, both as written word and an enduring look into being human, is the short final chapter when Scout walks Boo Radley home, then stands on his porch and looks back over the neighborhood and the years. In that beautifully written, perfectly toned few pages, Scout absorbs her father’s suggestion that to understand someone you have to walk in his shoes.

Most people would agree that it’s a good thing, trying to see something from someone else’s point of view. I believe most of us consider ourselves good people and believe we walk in another’s shoes all the time. We pride ourselves on it, how tolerant we’ve become since Atticus asked Scout to do that.

But we’re also humans. We’re the centers of our own universe — even more than our spouses or partners, children or parents, siblings, extended family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. We may say that those others are the center of our world, but every thought or impression we have is colored by our focus on ourselves.

Recent political and social events are a sobering reminder of how many people — people who consider themselves good people — can’t break out of their own self-view to stand on Boo Radley’s porch.

A small example is one we had this week in Waterville, Maine. The high school seniors have agreed to wear the same color graduation gown, ending the tradition of boys wearing purple and girls wearing white.

Negative comments in the Morning Sentinel story as well as by readers on centralmaine.com and in social media ranged from people railing against a world that vilifies the color white (really?), to giving in to “political correctness,” to ruining a tradition.

Many suggested a “compromise” of having two colors, but letting students choose which one to wear.

What’s ignored is that the point is to unify the group so that people who are marginalized, demeaned, made to feel different because of who they are or how they are, can just be another member of the group. It’s not making a change to “treat someone special,” it’s making a change to bring everyone together.

It’s hard to get that, when you haven’t had to feel the pain of being different and then be pointed out as such.

FullSizeRender (16)Everyone wants to feel accepted. A lot of our political backlash is fueled by that — it’s more comfortable to be one of us than one of them.

The rationalization that tradition is more important than people’s feelings is a great example. Tradition means inclusion. It means that we’re part of something bigger than us. That’s why people love it so much. Yet many use it as a way to drive a wedge between the group and those who are left out or made to feel demeaned by it.

As a writer, I’m forced to confront a variety of points of view if I want my book to be any good. I, like most people, like to think I can look at something from another’s point of view. I realize how hard it is, though, when I try to make sure my characters have different ways of looking at things.

Something that may get lost in that final chapter when Scout stands on Boo’s porch is the list of what Boo gave Scout and her brother Jem: “two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

Scout reflects “We had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

Readers of the book, of course, know they really did give Boo something. Still, it’s worth noting that Boo was not a human being to Scout until she stood on his porch.

Not to go all freshman English class and hit everyone over the head with it, but get it?

It’s hard to understand how another person feels if we don’t feel it ourselves. Hard to understand why something hurts or harms another person when it doesn’t hurt or harm us. Easy to stay in our comfort zone. Easier to dismiss a plea for understanding than to do the hard work of understanding something that doesn’t affect us personally. Easier to attribute idiotic intentions, stupid agendas, nonsensical concerns, if they’re not part of our reality.

You’re right, this isn’t about Boo Radley any more. It’s about us and the world we are part of.

Several weeks ago a friend gave me a shotgun shell. The back story isn’t important except for the fact that it reminded me in a very tangible way that I should consider where someone else is coming from. That same morning I’d read someone say she is trying hard in 2016 “to always assume positive intentions.” Reading that struck a chord with me, because I don’t do it. Then a couple hours later I was handed the shotgun shell. Life had just taken an epiphany and put a bold, thick circle around it.FullSizeRender (19)

It’s not as easy as we’d like to think, is it? To consider how others think and feel, and understand that it could be as important as what we think and feel. Sometimes more important. Fate didn’t need to put that shotgun shell in a rifle and blast me with it. I got Fate’s message the second it was handed to me by someone who had no idea he was Fate’s messenger. I carry it with me, too. It’s hard enough to keep that in mind — assuming positive intentions, looking at something from another’s  perspective — that I need a reminder in my pocket.

I think of it as my Boo Radley porch.

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News Is Good News is due out later this year. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47, like her Facebook page Maureen Milliken Mysteries, and sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com.

 

 

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