I was thirteen when my infatuation with To Kill a Mockingbird began. Since then, I have read the novel countless times – Harper Lee’s words are often comforting, like an old friend.
This past Tuesday, Harper Lee announced the upcoming release of a sequel to her classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Set for release this summer, Go Set a Watchman was reportedly written prior to the original novel, and includes the same characters twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird. The news surrounding this announcement brought back fond memories and lessons learned about the mockingbirds in our lives.
Set during the Great Depression when the South was plagued by racism, classism, and prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout. The story follows three children and their obsession with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley, whom they have never met. During this time, the community is beset with a racially plagued trial in which Scout’s father, Atticus, is the defense attorney for a black male accused of raping a white woman.
As the reader is guided through the difficult topics of rape and racial injustice, the book tackles social laws and community codes. Throughout the novel, Harper Lee uses a mockingbird to symbolize innocence, as represented by the following passage:
“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
During the climax of the novel, Scout and her brother are attacked by the vengeful father of the young woman who falsely made accusations of rape. The children are saved by their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, who eventually kills their attacker. Recognizing that it would be more of a sin to arrest someone who was helping save children, the local sheriff decides that the attacker was not killed by Boo Radley; instead, noting that the attacker must have fallen on his knife. When Atticus asked if Scout could understand the decision, she said “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
From the innocent perspective of a child, the reader learns to be a better neighbor, citizen, parent, and leader. Mockingbirds symbolize the intangible qualities and values that we want to define our organizations and communities (Tweet This). Leaders recognize those opportunities when sacrificing an acceptable decision, policy, or norm helps protect the greater good. At times, it may be against policy to waive fees for someone financially incapable of paying the fee; allowing code violations to continue for an elderly person who needs more time to correct the problem, or to allow an employee to be unproductive during a time of personal loss. While these examples are very trite, there are times when a leader needs to make a decision that benefits the greater good even though it might not be what policy states. Examples of community mockingbirds appear daily as some examples are very small and can be solved by the leader being passive aggressive about tackling an issue or complaint while others are more visible and require the leader to intentionally and publicly address the deviation from public policy. Either silently or publicly, protecting the mockingbird occurs when the foundational values for the community would be eroded by following policy.
What are mockingbirds in your community?
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