Now that Spring Break’s begun (or that it’s been four days since its beginning), I find myself alone with a stack of essays still ungraded, and a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to read and write a unit plan for over the next few days. The essays, I hope, will be taken care of by the end of tomorrow. But as all first-year English teachers can attest to, I don’t honestly know how much time they’re really going to take.
To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand, is the work I’m looking forward to. A number of my freshmen students are groaning about having to read it, because they just read it last year or the year before. Perhaps that’s a good thing. To take this out of context, if in another class, the teacher said “For the next few weeks, we’re going to be studying and then you’ll eventually be tested on material you’ve already learned,” my guess is a lot of them would be pretty stoked. That kind of thing occurring more often would certainly make school easier. So their aversion to this in my class might point to the fact that the majority has enjoyed (some of) the reading we’ve done and that they’re hoping for new experiences.
But there’s something that I want to impart to them during the weeks following our break, the first few weeks of the fourth and final quarter of the school year: that in reading a work a second time, in coming back to it with new knowledge, you really do come to understand more, and the picture in your mind is perhaps a little different, maybe very different. This change is fascinating, because while the alteration is greater than what comes from subsequent viewings of a film, with reading the memory of the last experience is less. The last time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in 8th grade, and really, because of all the cultural allusion to Atticus and the novel, I haven’t forgotten the plot, or Atticus’s speech, or how the whole thing ends. But I don’t really remember how it ends, or how it begins, how Atticus’s speech goes, how it sounds. Because that’s what the real experience of reading is, and because in more ways than not, you can’t take it with you after you’ve finished, not for more than a matter of hours perhaps, or a day or two. If art in any way intentionally or unintentionally imitates our lives, then I suppose the mirroring of life’s impermanence might never be done better than through the design of the written word and our act of simply reading.