“You are a product of your environment.” We’ve all heard these words. We have all seen what this phrase actually means. But what becomes the challenge is whether or not we allow ourselves to fit this persona.
When I heard that Harper Lee produced a version of To Kill a Mockingbird many years ago that was left unpublished, I knew I had to read it. Not just for myself, but for my students that become just as attached to the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. I had to know where the lines, “Folk are just folks”, and “You never truly understand a person until you walk around in their shoes.” came from. One of the most important discussions I have with my students is the impact this book has because it is told from Scout’s perspective as a young girl. We talk about what childhood innocence means and how it changes as we get older and become influenced by difficulties adults face. So I had to see how different this book would be told from Scout’s perspective as a young woman.
When I got the chance to read Go Set a Watchman, despite hearing I would hate Atticus and the message that was there, I read it. I felt like I owed it to Harper Lee for giving me the book that not only changed my classroom and the way I approach literature, but also the way the world views this challenging time in our history.
Harper Lee wrote both of these stories, and I could not forget that. I preach to my students all the time to remember to look at the author’s background for clues: look at their lives, look at their history, and the time period they wrote these books. This book was a draft to the book To Kill a Mockingbird, so could her views really have changed that much? Or do we just allow our own views to shield the message she wanted the world to see in Go Set a Watchman?
Yes, Atticus carries a completely different role in Go Set a Watchman. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he raised Scout. Harper Lee points out that he raised her and had such an impact on her that his conscience became her own.
Because I feel so connected to Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, was so proud of the way he handled all situations with his children, and knew I wanted the same type of father for my own children, I refuse to believe that Atticus was a bad person. I wanted to read this book to not just read the surface level problems and see why Atticus was the bad person so many reviewers made him out to be. I wanted to see past that and find the good in him, and remember that Harper Lee still set out to produce the same theme in both novels.
And, don’t get me wrong, I was equally as disappointed to know that Atticus was not the defined hero that he was in To Kill a Mockingbird. But I also know the time period this book was written. The world was not yet ready for Go Set a Watchman. It was too true to the beliefs that southern Americans stood on. They would hang onto the surface level problems Atticus had and would miss the point Lee wanted to make. To publish a book that brought about the change Harper Lee saw, it had to hit on childhood innocence. It had to prove to people that becoming a product of your environment didn’t have to be the accepted way. The only way to prove that was through the eyes of a child. Harper Lee’s editors knew that and they helped her to see that her message could come become reality if she changed point of view.
So, to me, the change she wanted to see is still there. And Atticus can still be a hero if you allow your mind to believe that his intentions were there. He knew he had become a product of his environment, but not at the level most Americans had done... He still allowed his children to have morals and believe that all people were created equally. The way his children were raised gave them the opportunity to strive for a change the world needed to see. But in doing so, he also gave them the mind to stand up for what they believed in. Atticus believed in the law and believed in respect. But, he knew that all of his personal beliefs, especially those that had been instilled in him as a white man growing up in a very segregated south, were going to be challenged. However, instead of trying to force those same beliefs on his children, he gave them the courage to stand up for what they personally believed in. He gave them morals, and he gave them the opportunity to not become a product of their environment. He did all of this without them knowing he had racist tendencies. He wanted more for his children. He sent Scout to New York, knowing that the northern states held the same beliefs he had allowed her to obtain. He knew that she would come back some day. He knew that she would challenge him. But...he also knew that his final lesson had to be that we cannot run away from things just because we don’t agree with the vast majority. If we truly want to see a change in this world, we have to be that change we want to see. We can’t just turn our head because it seems too far out of reach. Maybe Atticus knew he wasn’t going to be around to see this change that was necessary in America. So, he helped Scout develop character, pride, and courage. And when she realized all of this, she now could help her little southern county become accustomed to the way life was meant to be. Maybe Scout was Atticus’s watchman...
I learned so many life lessons from To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman was no different. I refuse to become a product of my environment. Living in a very rural town, listening to students spout off about law and government like they have studied it for thirty years, proves to me that my role as a parent is so much greater than what I originally thought. The way I live my life, the things I say, the things I do, mold these little innocent children living in my home and sitting in my classroom. If I don’t teach them to respect, have courage, and treat others the way we want to be treated, then they will simply continue to become products of their environment. They have to have minds of their own. Stop hanging onto negativity and facts/history that can’t be changed and create an environment you are proud to become a product of.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”--Gandhi.