Heroes Never Die: Dad, Teaching & Atticus Finch

HCNJsKNkxNfGYc1SEPvEDu2gBy Maureen Cummings — Growing up, I always knew which songs would one day play at each of my parent’s funerals.  That’s because, when they jokingly mentioned it, my brother taped a post it note on the fridge (so we couldn’t forget).

That may sound weird, but it wasn’t — especially not compared the time when (at age twelve) my dad told me that I would likely give his eulogy, since I was the self-pronounced writer of the family. And, as dark as it seems, this on-going joke has more depth than its dismal appearance.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of time to re-evaluate the idea that people say you should never meet your heroes. It never made sense to me that I was raised by mine.

I meet role models all the time. We all do. Its important to recognize people for their good works, and uplifting attitudes and set our paths toward theirs because somehow they seem to be doing something right, but heroes are different. To be a hero, in my eyes, is to rewrite the cards you were given in a way that shows others they can do just the same. I see heroism as the simplicity of goodness in real life, not some power provoked by circumstance, but realizing need even before you are asked to see it. I couldn’t name for you all my role models, but I can remember when I met my heroes, or at least when they became heroes.

Although I would love to go on about the uniqueness of my father and relish in all the modest good he brings to the worlds of people he meets, he’s not the only wise parent, hard working defense attorney, “guide me like a moral compass guy” that I have.

I met a similar hero when I was in seventh grade and revisited him again when I was a sophomore in high school. In fact, often I’ll find myself on the internet listening to his most famous closing argument. I have my dad, but we all have Atticus Finch, and that is such a gift.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird and creator of one of my most cherished heroes, Atticus Finch, recently announced the release of her second book. I am far too eager for July to roll around and this book to be in my hands.  It definitely sounds nerdy to admit that I cried, but there are a lot worse things I could be than nerdy. My excitement is less ephemeral than it may appear; it extends far beyond my selfish impatience to read the book myself. My excitement brought me forward to my future classroom, but first it brought me back.

When I heard the news of this prequel, I was taken back to the Maycomb County courthouse… and then to standing outside watching Miss Maudie’s house burn. I could hear Scout’s straightforward voice, and listen with her when Atticus told us what real courage looked like. I was brought back to what these words meant to me in my seventh grade mind and again what new lessons the same words brought to me three years later.

I thought about how I didn’t even know what the title meant the first read through, let alone that I was about to meet characters that would impact the value I place on topics as important as human dignity. I had no idea the lessons Atticus could teach me- and I still don’t fully. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me about the power of characters both in literature, but also in real life. The genius facets of Harper Lee’s piece are endless, but for the sake of brevity I would focus in on what influential characters she bore into the world. This is what lead me to thinking of my future classroom.

Stories like this are one of the main reasons I chose English education.

Understanding our fictional heroes may in turn guide students to realizing their real heroes. Scout taught me how to understand and love my dad more fully, and I know she’s done the same for many others. Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s soon to be second published work, has already set me up excited and ready to read. It also has me ready to teach. I would like to think that back when I was being taught To Kill a Mockingbird my teachers were nearly humbled knowing what a powerful piece of literature they had the privilege to present. We can’t know until July if Lee’s next work will hold such literary clout, but this news turned out to be such a great reminder that whoever says you shouldn’t meet your heroes for fear of disappointment – is wrong.

The lessons we are taught and the perspectives we are given by our chosen heroes (both literary and not) make this a worthwhile risk.  Because — if we pick the right ones — heroes never die.

I’m saving that line for the eulogy.

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