ANTWERP, Ohio – It was my husband who suggested the name Atticus for our first child. As To Kill a Mockingbird was my favorite book, I immediately agreed. Atticus Christopher Sorrell was born on May 6, 1995.
We read the book to Atticus as an infant and talked about its morals often. But Harper Lee’s novel really came alive for me in 2007, when I was removed from my job as a high school journalism adviser. The student paper where I worked published an editorial on gay rights; the administration was furious. Though I had the support of my students, many of my fellow teachers would not stand behind me. Some even agreed to testify against me at a school board hearing.
Months after, I spoke about my experience at Franklin College. One of the students there asked how my son was handling the media storm. I explained that my son was named after Atticus Finch because Finch did the right thing even when people thought he was wrong. That was how I felt when I defended my students. A lot of people disagreed with me, but I knew what right was. In that moment, Atticus became more than just my favorite fictional character.
A Southern lawyer out to fight the bigoted and corrupt law system of the South, single dad, and the best shot in Maycomb County. To me, he was a symbol of moral rectitude and integrity.
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Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, has complicated that. As I tore through the book, I was anxious and, at times, horrified by Lee’s portrait of Atticus. At one point, the now 26-year-old Jean Louise finds a racist pamphlet that belongs to Atticus. We later find out that Atticus has been colluding with other local men to impede the progress of the NAACP. At one point, he asks Jean Louise: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
When I finished, I thought immediately of my son Atticus. I’d hoped his name would encourage him to be independent, intelligent and brave — qualities I see in him now, at 20. Would his moniker be forever tarnished?
No, I quickly realized. This new, more flawed Atticus is more realistic. And that’s a good thing for me and my son.
The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird seemed perfect. Go Set a Watchman challenges that idealized view. It shows us that even someone who seems brave and reasonable can react unreasonably — even bigoted and hateful — when his life is threatened. It’s upsetting to see Atticus behave this way, but it’s also honest. And that’s exactly what our best characters offer — insight into who we are, how we behave and how we can be better.
As an English teacher for the past 16 years, I teach my students about classic American characters like Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and George from Of Mice and Men. These protagonists are brave, but flawed. As we read these books together, I help my students learn from characters’ mistakes. They see that desperation, hopelessness and vengeance are as common as happiness, hope, and pride.
Most of us view ourselves like Atticus — noble, brave, right most of the time. But like it or not, we all have latent prejudices grounded in religion, gender, race or class. This was a challenge in 1954. It is still a challenge today. For years, readers have held up Atticus Finch as the image of perfection.
When I started the book, I didn’t want that image to be challenged, but as I finished it, I realized that we can learn just as much from a character’s flaws as his attributes. Even our heroes have blind spots, flaws and reprehensible positions.
Maybe this is a more important lesson for my son, and for us all.
Amy Sorrell is a high school English teacher at Antwerp Local School in Antwerp, Ohio. She is the 2007 recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award and the Mary Beth Tinker Award.