Harper Lee Emerges for 'Mockingbird' Award
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is required reading for many high school literature classes. Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of the 1930's Jim Crow South is told through the eyes of young Scout Finch, who witnesses a trial of a young black man falsely convicted of raping a white woman.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is considered one of the most influential books in America and remains a top seller, but it has special resonance for students in Harper Lee's home state of Alabama, where every year they compete for a chance to meet the reclusive author. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: For six years now, Alabama high school students have pondered in prose how life has changed in the South since Harper Lee's depiction of the fictional small town of Macom, Alabama during the Depression.
Ms. ADRIANNE FARRIS (Student, Thorsby High School) : (Unintelligible) of Alabama's Youth: My Awakening to "Mockingbird"'s Realities.
ELLIOTT: Adrian Ferris from rural Thorsby High School is this year's state-wide winner of the "To Kill a Mockingbird" essay contest. She wrote about a friend of hers from school.
Ms. FARRIS: She was 15, pregnant, scared and alone. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she never thought her life would come to this. At first, the girl was moody and appeared angry at the world. As I got to know her better, I learned of the environment in which she was accustomed to living.
The place she called home was a small mobile home with two foster parents and seven other girls ranging in age from two months to 17 years. The overcrowded conditions were stressful for her and her unborn child.
ELLIOTT: Adrianne compared the girl's plight to the character Mayella Ewell in "Mockingbird." She's the young white woman who was abused by her father and falsely accused a black man of raping her. Adrianne says society failed both girls and used her essay to call on the state of Alabama to do more to protect and provide for its youth.
Ms. FARRIS: Even though programs are in place today to try to help aid these children, they really don't get the attention and affection that they need, also like Mayella from "To Kill a Mockingbird."
ELLIOTT: I met Adrianne Farris and other student essayists on the University of Alabama campus last week, where they were being honored at a special luncheon. The highlight: a rare chance to meet Harper Lee, and better yet, have her sign their copies of "To Kill A Mockingbird."
The very private writer arrived on campus under tight security and was adamant that she would only meet with the students.
Ms. RAGAN STEVENS(ph) (Student): Hey, Ms. Lee.
Ms. HARPER LEE (Author): You again?
Ms. STEVENS: Yes, ma'am. Can't get away from me, can you?
ELLIOTT: That's Ragan Stevens, a senior from Mountain Brook High School near Birmingham. If she sounds familiar with the famed writer, there's good reason. Ms. Lee came to see Ragan portray Scout Finch in a recent production of "To Kill A Mockingbird."
Ms. STEVENS: I first read "To Kill A Mockingbird" in eighth grade in my English class.
ELLIOTT: What did you think?
Ms. STEVENS: It was a heart-wrenching story. I was - it had a very profound impact on my life just because it showed how tough it was for black people back then and it was something that I had never really thought about from their point of view before. And that's really the challenge of "To Kill A Mockingbird."
And it also just made me realize that it's not only about black and white people. It's about how you treat everybody that you meet every day.
ELLIOTT: You seem to be getting just a little bit emotional about it.
Ms. STEVENS: Yes, ma'am. I would say that especially in the past year the book has had a big impact on my life, just because of what I've been able to do.
ELLIOTT: Ragan is talking about how students from her mostly white high school in an affluent Birmingham suburb teamed with students from the mostly black working class Fairfield High School on the other side of Birmingham to stage "To Kill A Mockingbird." It's what she wrote about in her essay.
Ms. STEVENS: Fairfield does not have a theater department, so this was a perfect opportunity for the two schools to come together. And it also was a perfect example of what Harper Lee was saying to do in the book, which was to stand in someone else's skin and see things from their point of view.
ELLIOTT: Her castmate, Roman Gladney(ph), a senior from Fairfield, plays the role of Tom Robinson, the black field hand wrongly accused of rape in Harper Lee's novel. He remembers being a little skeptical when the white students first came to his high school.
Mr. ROMAN GLADNEY (Student): I knew it was going to be different, because this was a whole different culture coming to Fairfield and everybody was kind of nervous. You know, alright, what's going on? Will they like us? You know. Will we fit together, you know? And once they stepped in there and their first handshake, their first handshake, it was like, okay. It's cool. Come on. Come on. Come on.
ELLIOTT: You can tell Roman and Ragan have developed a close rapport. She giggles at his punchlines and nods in agreement as he describes their experience. At one point, they both start to talk at the same time.
Ms. STEVENS: I would - oh, go ahead, Roman.
Mr. GLADNEY: No, no, no. Go ahead. Rock, paper, scissors.
ELLIOTT: But the game of rock, paper, scissors doesn't help. They both shoot the same symbol each round.
Ms. STEVENS: Oh, shoot. I couldn't make up my mind. Okay, you go.
Mr. GLADNEY: Okay. I'll start up.
ELLIOTT: Roman's essay notes how Alabama has evolved educationally and politically since "To Kill A Mockingbird" was penned. He's proud that Birmingham has a black mayor and congressman and that there are no barriers for him to attend a state university.
But he says more needs to happen to promote equality in the workplace and in social settings.
When you all first started that project, was it unusual for you to be in a social setting with black students? And was it unusual for you to be in a social setting with white students?
Mr. GLADNEY: That to me was new. That was - I had never had any white friends until the beginning of the play. But before that, I had not run in circles with other Caucasian Americans or anything like that. So it was kind of eye opening to me.
Ms. STEVENS: My experiences were basically the same, where I had just never been given the opportunity to hang out with people of different races, so it was awesome.
ELLIOTT: You know, Alabama has progressed a long way from the days of Jim Crow and the situation that Harper Lee depicts in her novel. But still, the fact that here you are, two high school students who for the first time - you're what, 16, 17 years old? It took you that long in your life to actually interact with someone of the other race. What does that tell you?
Ms. STEVENS: Well, it really struck me as unfortunate and wrong that it took an experience like this play for me to get to see, you know, all these kids from Fairfield.
Mr. GLADNEY: It just identifies to me that the racial boundary has not been deteriorated. I think it's like, it's in the mind of a person. Like a baby comes in this world not knowing what's wrong, not knowing what's right. So it's like you implant this seed inside of a baby and once that baby grows up, this seed is going to continue and continue to nourish and grow. If you plant the right seed inside the baby, it doesn't matter what color skin the person is. It doesn't matter what color race he come from. If the seed is that you love everybody and you know no matter where they come from you can intertwine with them, it's going to grow.
Ms. STEVENS: And that seems to be exactly what Lee is trying to tell us in her novel.
LYDEN: That was ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Debbie Elliott with students Adrian Ferris, Ragan Stevens and Roman Gladney. They were speaking about author Harper Lee in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Debbie Elliott returns to host this show next week.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.