Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Birth of a defender

In 6th grade, we switched from reading groups to individualized reading. Each week, we had to read one book and report to the teacher on it. Every student was assigned to a day, 5 students per day. So we each got about 12 minutes of face time with the teacher to talk enough about the book to prove that we'd read it. While I read a lot of Newbery winners, I also subjected poor Mr. H to every book in the Anne of Green Gables series (all 8 of them, plus the two Chronicles of Avonlea) and quite a few Louisa May Alcott's. Then I threw in Gone With the Wind (read over a holiday, so I had more than one week to read the 1037 pages).

One day in spring, Mr. H told me he wanted to choose my next book for me. He had a small collection of books in his classroom. He went to the shelf and pulled off a shiny, brand-new book. No stains, no folded pages, and not even a hint of a crease on the spine. "I've had this book in my classroom for a long time," he told me, "but I've never had a student who was ready for it. I think you're ready for it." He told me this was his favorite book.

To an 11 year-old, those words were magic. I wasn't just being given an assignment; I was being trusted with a great responsibility. My beloved teacher wanted to share his favorite book with me, and only me. He thought I would love his favorite book just as he did. Now, I'm sure he made suggestions to all his other students as well, but he had never shared this book with anyone. The proof was in the pristine cover. I was his chosen one. I had to take the responsibility of reading and appreciating this special book seriously, as seriously as I had ever taken anything. I had to justify his faith in me.

I don't know what my parents thought when I came home that evening and started reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." They had let me read "Gone With the Wind" so they really couldn't have thought this new book was too mature for me. Still, I'm not sure it's a book most parents think of for a 6th grader.

It took a while for me to get really into it. Scout annoyed me at first. I much preferred her brother, but she kept getting in the way. It really picked up for me when the criminal case started, naturally. I couldn't believe the way the rest of the town responded to Atticus taking the case. Mom took the opportunity to explain to me a little bit more about how things had been in the 30s, when her own mother was a young woman. I had some knowledge of slavery, of course, but I don't think I had a real comprehension of actual people being cruel to actual other people just because their skin was different. That was a bit of an eye-opener.

I remember like it was yesterday the day I read the trial. Mom interrupted me for dinner. I ran down the stairs to set the table, elated because Atticus Finch had proved his case. He'd just absolutely proved it. Tom didn't rape anyone. Atticus didn't just prove that Tom didn't do it, he proved what really happened. I was so excited that Tom would be freed and was dying to find out what would happen afterwards. Everyone in town who had been mean to the Finches would apologize, right? That mean girl who accused Tom and her meaner dad would be punished, right? Mom gave nothing away, but she had to be dreading what would come next. It can't be easy to send your child back to something, knowing her heart is about to be broken.

You all know what happened. The jury convicted, Tom got shot, and one future public defender was born. "How could they have convicted him when they knew he didn't do it?" I cried to my mother. "Times were just different then," she responded, not really having any better explanation. "Well, I'm not going to let it happen anymore," I told her. You can say things like that when you're 11 without people laughing at you for being a naive fool. Not to your face, anyway. Mom may have chuckled with Dad about it later, but she would never have discouraged me from believing I could save the world from injustice.

When people ask me why I do what I do, I usually start with this story. I probably was going to be a defender-type anyway. I always stuck up for the underdog or the misunderstood one or the one who caused trouble. I always wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt and a chance to explain their side. But this book went a long way to showing me the career path I should take if I really wanted to stick up for people who didn't have anyone else.

I haven't seen Mr. H in well over 20 years. I'm sure he's retired by now. I sometimes wonder if he ever found another student to share his favorite book with. I wonder if he still remembers the first one he gave it to. I know I will always remember him. I wish I could find him somewhere and tell him this story. I would love for him to know that by sharing his favorite book with me, he helped me find the career that makes me feel I have a purpose in life. I would love for him to know that I got the message of the book and I took it to heart. I would love for him to know that his faith in me was justified.

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