To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that was all mine.
I had always been a reader. As a little girl, I’d read Caddie Woodlawn, and Pollyanna, and had Charlotte’s Web and A Wrinkle in Time read aloud to me. And others, of course, and more than I will name here. When I was eleven years old, I found a VHS copy of the movie To Kill a Mockingbird in my parents movie closet. I wanted to watch it, and my mom said no. Not until I read the book. She went to the store and bought a purple trade paperback edition and presented it to me that night.
I was eleven, this was a big book. An undertaking. I set about conquering that mammoth, even so. I read in the car. I read at the park. I read at church and in the tree in front of my house. I finished it on my bed, late at night, with tears in my eyes. I sunk from the edge of the bed to the ground and wept, and hugged it close, and got the edges of the pages all messed up with my salty tears.
I would never be the same.
I reread it a handful of times over the next few years. I got in fights with people in my Texas town that still used the N word because now I understood where that word came from, what that word meant, and why it was wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird taught me that.
I moved away from Texas at thirteen and started to eighth grade in a small town in Colorado nestled between the Rocky Mountains and an evergreen forest. The day before I started school — friendless, ill-equipped to navigate this new environment — I met my English teacher at the open house. Her name was Mrs. Collette. She was a tiny white woman with wisps of blonde hair and shiny blue eyes. She asked me if I was a reader. I told her my favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird, in fact I had it in my backpack to come with me to school. I felt safer with it. Like I had a friend.
Mrs. Collette, it turned out, was also friends with Scout and Jem. We had that in common. And until I was ready to make new friends, she let me sit in her classroom at lunch and grade papers, talk books, talk writing. Mrs. Collette saw potential in me, in the way I put words together, and even though I was terrified, she encouraged me to be brave.
To Kill a Mockingbird made that happen.
Harper Lee made that happen.
Today, Harper Lee left this world. She moved on to the next adventure, a greater adventure than this one. She changed my life with her words, and forever, I’m in debt to the bravery it took to write a book that was dangerous, but necessary. I’m thankful, forever, that she did.