To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the only book I was assigned to read twice: once in middle school for Reading/Writing Workshop and once in high school for Honors English. She was the first Alabama-born heroine who was introduced to me at school. My first encounter with her was alongside Anne Frank and Charlotte Bronte. As an Alabama native, I was surprised that someone from my state, often only recognized in school and in culture for opposing the civil rights movement, would be presented on par with a young Holocaust survivor and an enduring British writer.
I have not read the book since my school days, but I recall some details from studying it then. The way Tom Robinson said “no” made it more likely to be true. The courtroom was segregated, unlike the ones I saw in the TV shows Law & Order and Matlock. Boo Radley was an outcast whom Scout befriended at the end of the book. It struck me that Boo was as much misjudged by most of the townspeople as Tom was.
I didn’t fit in Alabama, although I grew up in Ensley, a neighborhood of Birmingham, and Homewood, one of the city’s suburbs. Many acquaintances thought I played the wrong kind of music (classical), studied too hard (in five AP classes), and socialized with too many different kinds of people (iconoclast, Southern Baptist, Eagle Scout, Jewish, Chinese, and Scottish-Irish-Cuban). I didn’t know I would eventually find my place among graphic designers, artists, and baristas at brick-walled fair trade coffee roasters, but I practiced seeing and accepting the strangeness of others and myself through Scout’s eyes.
Mass media and social media make me aware of many celebrity deaths, but Harper Lee’s literally hit close to home for me. I made this keyboard improvisation in her honor at my February 19, 2016 show at BohoZone in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.