As a girl, I spent large chunks of my summer at my grandparents' houses in small towns in North Carolina. Wearing flip flops (if any shoes at all) and playing with my brother and cousins outside among the pine needles and cat tails and sandy soil. We weren't that different in those summers from the Finch kids. And when I read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager, I felt like it was written just for me; a book about a Southern girl barefoot and curious, starting to navigate the more complicated aspects of life.
As a white person from a comfortable family, Harper Lee's words taught me that racial equality and social justice are hard as hell to come by, but so worth fighting for even when everyone around us is pushing back or wondering why.
As a humanist, her book taught me to look for the good in everyone. No one is evil. No one is born bad. Good people can do bad things, because it's what they believe is right. And what a person believes is right can be a product of a lot of different factors. Likewise, she taught me that everyone, even the Boo Radleys of the world are capable of being heroes.
As a writer, she taught me the importance of voice and perspective, of putting yourself in the background. To Kill a Mockingbird would have been a wholly different book if it had been told through the eyes of Atticus or Dill or Boo. It's Scout that tells us the story, as only she can.
As a mother, she taught me to be patient with my own children, and also to give them room to be themselves, whoever they are. I try to give them the freedom to like what they like and embrace the things that they are curious about, and to teach them the same patience, tolerance, and passion for justice that Harper Lee taught me.
So, when my good-hearted son tells me he wants to be an attorney and work for justice, I embrace it. And when my ever-curious, ever-thinking daughter wants to read about dragons, dinosaurs, spiders or cats, or just play in the sandbox I say, "Go on Jean Louise, (Yes, I do sometimes call her that.) Just don't be late for dinner."