To Kill a Mockingbird, err…To Kill a Kid’s Desire to Read

News of Harper Lee’s death dominated the internet late last week. It prompted some serious conversation at Chez Jax. “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of my favorite books, and the movie is at the top of my list also. The book is so dear to me that I refuse to read “Go Set a Watchman” because I really don’t believe the beloved Ms. Lee wanted it published.

At the same time, I received a note (the second in two weeks) from Ethan’s teacher about his reading grade. Part of the grade relies on students reading books and taking online quizzes about the book contents. Students can pick any book, as long as it’s within their individual reading level and part of the database program from which the quizzes originate.

Ethan LOVES to read. The kid will literally spend hours in his room reading. It’s awesome! As a former literature major, it truly warms my heart that my kid – my SON – loves reading. Unfortunately, the kinds of books Ethan likes to read aren’t on the program list. He likes reference books, encyclopedias, text books, and not-kid books. Seriously, the kid reads text books and encyclopedias FOR FUN.

As long as he’s reading, I encourage that. Read what you want, I say! Just read.

Because he’s not reading books in the database program, he can’t take the quizzes. (Reference and text books are not on the list.) So this quarter, he’s at 35 percent of his reading goal, even though he just finished David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers.” (Not on the list.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was on the list, within Ethan’s reading level, and worth 15 points, which would put him over his reading goal for the quarter. I dug out my old copy and handed it to him, explaining I read it for the first time in the sixth grade.

He started reading it that day. The first chapter, he said, was slow, but he reasoned, most books start a bit slow. By the second chapter, he was hooked. He read it all weekend. And he took it to school today.

At 9:30, I received an email from his teacher:

Ethan brought To Kill a Mockingbird to school to read today.  I told him that book is not appropriate for his age given one of the adult topics in the book.  I did not tell him it was concerning rape.  He thought I was talking about racism, which is fine. Nevertheless, that book is appropriate for the higher middle school and high school student.  At SCHOOL NAME, we read the book in 8th grade and it is not on our AR list of quizzes for anyone but the 8th graders reading the book.  Ethan asked me to email you and explain that to you.  If you’d like him to read it that is not my business but it won’t work for his AR goals and I’d prefer that he not discuss the topic in school at this age. 

WTF. So my kid reads at a ninth grade level (this book’s at an 8th grade level), but books at that level aren’t appropriate? Color me confused…

Sure, the book includes racism and rape and a whole host of other social issues. Those SAME issues are talked about on morning drive radio, or the nightly news, or referenced in TV shows. Issues Ethan and I frequently talk about, openly, at the dinner table or before bed. Things that are part of our world. Things that I don’t hide from my kids. Things that require open and honest discussion.

I’m not raising my kids to live in a bubble. I want them to form their own opinions, to be able to dialogue about issues in our world. I don’t shy away from the “hard” topics. I want my kids to understand that there’s some nasty bad people and things out there – and some really good people who fight for what’s right.

Decision made: fuck his reading grade. I’m letting the kid read what he wants – even if it’s not on the “list” or deemed “inappropriate.” I’m going to tell him to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” BECAUSE his teacher doesn’t want him to – that’s reason enough to read it, talk about it, and learn from it.

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