I recently saw To Kill a Mockingbird at a local theater, a story that has stuck with me through many years, and will continue to stick with me for the rest of my life.
My interest in the production peaked when I found out my director from high school would be playing Atticus. He is possibly my favorite person ever.
In high school he could never remember my name. First he thought it was Rebecca. I politely corrected him, saying, no, actually, my name is Teri. The next time I talked to him, he had cast me to play Clairee Belcher in Steel Magnolias. At the first rehearsal, he started calling me Trish. Again, I corrected him – actually, my name is Teri. We repeated this ritual for a full two weeks – him calling me Trish, me correcting him with my real name. My friend Shelby, also in the show, turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s ever going to remember your name. We should all just call you Trish and really convince him that it’s your name.” The whole cast agreed.
Fast forward two months, when we are in tech rehearsals for the show. My English teacher at the time had come down to help him with the fine-tuning. We were working on getting the lighting right for this one scene, and he said to me, “Trish, can you come downstage for a minute?”
My English teacher turned to him and said, “What did you just call her?”
“Her name’s Teri, you know.”
He replied, “Oh yeah oh yeah. Teri — I knew that.”
People still call me Trish to this day.
At this time, he and his family were in the midst of adopting a beautiful three-year-old girl from Haiti. While visiting her in the orphanage, they met a pair of twins only one-year-old. They decided to adopt them, too. They would not get to bring them home for a long time. Or so they thought.
The semester after Steel Magnolias, we were doing Seussical the Musical, as every high school does at some point or another. It was during that semester that the big earthquake struck Haiti. The country was doing everything it could just to get people out. Instead of bringing home their older girl within the next couple of years and the twins within the next four, they brought all three kids home within the month.
I remember going over to their house on multiple occasions to help their two older daughters babysit. The little kiddos needed a lot of wrangling, to say the least. I had become friends with their oldest daughter and while I am no expert babysitter, I did enjoy going over to their house to watch my good friend be an amazing older sister to her younger siblings.
I was only a freshman in high school when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the book assigned to us for our summer reading before the start of the school year – my first high school assignment ever. I remember reading it twice because I wanted to do well. Also, it was just so damn good.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen my old director. When I found out he would be playing Atticus, I had to get tickets immediately, and his performance did not disappoint.
When he jumped into Atticus’s closing statement from the court scene, the whole audience was captivated. By the time he reached those final words – “In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson” – there was not a dry eye in sight. A pointed silence hung over the entire theater, broken only by a few sniffles. For anyone who has not read the book, Tom Robinson is a black man who has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus knows the case is hopeless, no matter how clear cut the evidence is that Tom did no such thing. It was a white man’s word against a black man’s. Atticus knew who was going to win. But the jury deliberated for hours after his closing statement.
My director and his wife are a white couple raising three black children. In the world we live in today, that means that they raise them differently that they did their two older white daughters. They have to tell their children how to deal with police, if ever, god forbid, they find themselves, like Tom Robinson, in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a white man, my director has no way to authentically communicate to his son what it means to be a young black man in America.
They have to teach their children about a world that will be very unfair to them. They have to teach their children that even if they abide by every law, get the best education, and work hard, there are still going to be people that will write them off because of the color of their skin.
They have to fear for their children’s safety. They have to fear how they might be treated by someone who is ignorant. They have to fear that at any moment, their smiles, their futures, their lives, could be taken away from them.
I hope the number of cases like Tom Robinson’s in this country will dwindle – that any man, woman, or child who is wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit will have the chance to make their voices heard – that no more lives will be ruined due to misjudgment.
I hope for an end to Bob Ewells and Walter Cunninghams. I hope for an influx of white allies like Atticus Finch. I hope that the Calpurnias, the Toms, and the Reverend Sykes of the world will continue to speak out and never let anyone forget that their lives matter.
I hope that one day we will all understand that color has nothing to do with who tells the truth or whose voice should be heard loudest.
My director has taught me many things about acting, yes, but more importantly, he has always shown me how to live a life worth living – a life full of love for other people, a life lived for the sake of the protection of all human lives. A privileged life is not one to remain comfortable in, but rather it is one with the great responsibility to discard comfort for the sake of what is right. We must recognize the work that still needs to be done – that living here in the United States can be hell on earth for some citizens but not every citizen, because the opportunities that are afforded to some are not afforded to others who are of the same merit, but not the same skin tone. Harper Lee’s novel shouldn’t still be relevant, but it is.
I have just been given another reminder of all this, and I am thankful.