The Coming-of-Age Story of Stories: Oh, Harper

Harper Lee and Truman Capote; New York Public Library Digital Collection

Early this morning I finally opened the pages of my beautiful 1993 edition of To Kill A Mockingbird, the one Chef David so lovingly sought and then finally found in hardcover and gifted to me this past Christmas. It has been stacked atop the reading pile on my end table, which is to say, the end table at my end of the sofa, waiting for Just The Right Moment.

When I moved to Vermont in 2012, limited space—inside the moving truck and in my new digs—forced me to make tough decisions about which of my beloved books I could bring with me; culling through them all to decide which I must leave behind was a monumental effort that provoked no small amount of hand wringing and angst on my part. Suffice it to say, that cherished book found its way into a packing box. But later on, much later, I could not find it. I could see it in my mind’s eye on the bookcases inside the tiny Upper Valley lakeside cottage that was my first home in Vermont, and again at the loft where I lived for about a year and a half in the middle of the state, and yet again, I swore I saw it on some shelves in our newly combined household, Chef David’s and mine, when we lived together in Arlington.

But when I went searching for it there one day, I could not find it anywhere. Later on, when I unearthed boxes and boxes of my books down in the basement of that house, I was hopeful. After unpacking all of them, though, still nothing. I was left scratching my head, and finally acknowledged the book had officially gone AWOL. The Chef understood this was tantamount to a tragedy and so had spent some time looking online for the correct edition; now at last it is restored.

Anyway. This morning I finally opened its pages, and said to him, I had merely been waiting for the right moment. It’s a little like eating a cupcake, I went on to explain: When you eat all the icing off the top, it is so good and satisfying, and then it is all gone. (He furrowed his brow at this notion, and then shook his head.) Well, okay, I conceded, it’s not really like that at all, because the book will still be there, but the cupcake will not. But the story is so, so delicious, and I have put off diving back into it because coming to the end of a beautifully crafted story, which To Kill A Mockingbird most certainly is, can be so cathartic but sad, even when you know exactly how it ends. And yes, I have read it too many times in my life to number. It is simply that good, or so good it makes you want to kill yourself, quoting from a favorite movie.

This morning I decided to look at the ‘front matter’ before I started reading, and way down at the bottom of the copyright page, noted that the ISBN/Library of Congress entry reads as follows:

1. Fathers and daughters—Southern States—Fiction.  2. Southern States—Race relations—Fiction.  3. Trials (Rape)—Southern States—Fiction.  4. Girls—Southern States—Fiction.  5. Domestic Fiction.  6. Bildungsromane.  7. Legal stories.

My eye went right back to item number six, Bildungsromane. That was a new one on me. When I searched on it in Merriam-Webster, I found this (letter ‘e’ at the end having taken its leave):

bildungsroman

noun

bil·​dungs·​ro·​man | \ ˈbil-du̇ŋ(k)s-rō-ˌmän  , -du̇ŋz- \

Definition of bildungsroman

literature : a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.

Which is to say, it is a coming-of-age story. That, gentle reader, is one of my favorite themes in literature, and goes a long way towards explaining why I’m so smitten by movies where this is the central theme. And maybe it is one Harper Lee who unwittingly planted that seed in my head all those years ago when To Kill A Mockingbird was required reading, back in eighth grade, back when I was still very much immersed in my own coming of age.

The movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird is also exquisite, but many, many details are missing from it, one assumes in the interest of time, and some details have been, what? Massaged a bit. This morning as I settled into the backstory of Boo Radley, and then was reminded how it had been Dill Harris to obsess over him far more than Jem and Scout ever had, and how it had been on a dare from Dill that Jem was finally compelled to trespass into the Radley yard and smack the side of the house to try to draw Boo himself outside into the light of day, I recognized a little bit of my younger self in Dill, because Dill was an instigator through and through. He was masterful at it, for he had enough cunning about him not only to set in motion this foolhardy behavior in the older Jem, but also knew full well that Jem could never bear being judged as a fraidy cat in the eyes of anybody, not even the fraidy cat who had the audacity to make this call. And so this was the threat he dangled so artfully in front of Jem, along with another carrot to sweeten the deal.

I was not that masterful an instigator, not even close, but I was Dill Harris’ age (“going on seven”) when this proclivity emerged in me. And by the time I was called out for it, I was every bit of age seven, a second grader at Fox Meadows Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. A far cry from Harper Lee’s fictional and sleepy little town of Maycomb, Alabama, and removed by more than three decades from her story’s time, suburban Memphis in the 1960s shared at least some of the cultural inclinations of the American Deep South, and certainly many of its inhabitants would have remembered the Great Depression.

My second-grade teacher was a tall, lean African-American woman named Mrs. Peete. She was young and beautiful, a snappy dresser, with a soft voice and a kind face. My mama met her, like everybody else’s had, on the orientation day that was always scheduled a week before school started. I would have walked down the cinderblock hallway in that small elementary school still dressed in my summer shorts and seersucker top and navy blue Keds sneakers, holding her hand and full of nervous anticipation; she would have been talking to me while we walked, explaining how on the first day I would come inside those doors, and then turn this-a-way and go down the hall and then turn that-a-way, and then Mrs. Peete’s door would be right ahead. That kind of thing.

Once inside the classroom, I would blush, and hide a little in back of my mama. On the chalkboard Mrs. Peete would have neatly printed out, the way elementary school teachers do, the list of school supplies we’d need ahead of the first day of second grade: A box of Crayola crayons, the kind that had a flat side and so would not roll off the desk; two lined writing tablets; a tub of paste; a pair of blunt-ended scissors; a ruler; and a pair of chunky No. 2 pencils. In the first grade, I’d developed an anxious habit of chewing on my chunky pencils, and my parents were alarmed on the occasion of an open house to find my pencil settled down inside its little well, with not one stitch of paint remaining on it, but instead its bare-nekkid wood full of teeny toothmarks.

After we left Mrs. Peete’s room, on the way through the school’s doors and back outside to the car, my mama announced confidently that she liked Mrs. Peete very much, and she knew I would learn a lot and have a fun time in the second grade at Fox Meadows Elementary School. I believed her, and for the most part I believe I did. That was a long time ago. But the single thing to stay with me all these years later was the occasion Mrs. Peete asked my mother to come in for a parent-teacher conference. In the hours leading up to that, mom later told me, she had convinced herself the sole purpose of the conference was surely for Mrs. Peete to gloat about my burgeoning intellect and glowing success as a second grader.

Turns out it was nothing of the kind, but instead a meeting where Mrs. Peete aired her grievances, maintaining I was officially the class instigator, had discovered the singular joy of daring my classmates to engage in undesirable behavior, and then delighted in observing the execution of it, while my own hands stayed clean. A little like Dill’s might have. Mrs. Peete had tolerated this behavior to a degree, but after a time decided it was best to alert my parents (or my mother at least) so that, ostensibly, there could also be consequences for my poor decision making at home.

I have no recollection at all specifically what kinds of things I had dared my classmates to do. But I feel sure they were nowhere near as gallant or meaningful as sneaking onto the Radley property in Maycomb, Alabama to try to draw Boo Radley outside in the light of day, especially after Jem said he ate animals raw and his hands were stained with their blood permanently, because that is what happens when you kill and eat an animal raw. Only one Harper Lee, speaking through Dill Harris (and everybody knows Lee based Dill upon none other than her real-life friend, Truman Capote) could so brilliantly concoct that kind of a dare.

Write about what you know: That’s a writing rule of thumb. Now my age has come, as it were, but my coming-of-age story is possibly a story worth telling. Maybe someday, I’ll invoke my fraidy-cat self to write my memoirs and just let them speak for themselves. Or maybe I’ll publish a work of fiction steeped in what I know. But I can think of no higher inspiration than the story that unfolds in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the brilliant descriptive writing that is the product of Harper Lee. (Well, maybe To Kill A Mockingbird and a pile of cupcakes.)


One thought on “The Coming-of-Age Story of Stories: Oh, Harper

  1. I was both amused and enthralled by your reminiscences. I still hold a grudge against one Bev W. who had the audacity to copy from my paper in 2nd grade. Not only did I get in trouble for copying from her!!! but she gloated about it at recess. From that point on I learned to write and cover my paper at the same time – I’m sure I looked rather contorted but I was determined to never let it happen again!

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