Friday, July 9, 2010

Remembering 'Mockingbird' and an old friend

I was asked this week to participate in a 50th birthday event for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I'll be reading an essay and a brief passage from the book Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Austin's BookPeople.

Today, I went to KUT studios to read the essay for broadcast in a few minutes. You can either read or listen to it here (scroll down for the sound file). It involves an old friend I've never forgotten.

It was a lot of fun, both writing the piece and going into the studio to read it.

Here's the essay in written form.
(On the air, they used the first paragraph as an intro):

I've been thinking a lot this week about the book To Kill a Mockingbird and my old friend Jennifer Manley. Jennifer was a pretty girl I met on the bus at Austin High School a million years ago. To Kill a Mockingbird was the book we all had to read in school. It was supposed to guide us down the path to adulthood.

I remember Jennifer's smile the most. She had braces and thick auburn hair. She was tall and glowed with innocence as she grinned out at the awkward in-betweenness of high school. Jennifer had moved to Austin from the Midwest and knew no one at Austin High. She seemed baffled by her place among the cliques—the stoners by the tennis courts, the cowboys at the front entrance, the West Austin socialites on the second floor.

My memories of her are fragments: At her house with my girlfriend Julie as “Don't Fear the Reaper” played on the radio in the background. The three of us sliding through the fence to frolic in the swimming pool at a mausoleum-like mansion next door. Me acting on impulse and kissing Jennifer one night after giving her a ride home, and Jennifer coming clean about it the next day to Julie. In college, a chance meeting with Jennifer at an Austin nightclub called The Still. She and I, old friends, dancing with the pure abandon of youth.

Jennifer's funeral one month later.

The newspaper clipping of her death is yellowed and fits in the palm of my hand: “Jennifer Neil Manley was killed in an automobile accident Saturday in Iowa. Two other persons were injured in the crash, one of them critically.”

Five years later, Jennifer's youngest brother Carter died in an Austin car crash.

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus tells his daughter, who then asks Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

To Kill a Mockingbird to me is about the innocence of youth and how quickly it can be snuffed out. Jennifer and her brother died too young, and I wonder about the adults they could have become. Scout is like Jennifer, an innocent dancing close to the edge of disaster and adulthood. She meets the unknown in the form of Boo Radley, and is expected to fear him. The story is all about that fear—the fear of losing your grip on the steering wheel of life, the fear of change and growth, the fear of what lies ahead.

It is fear that too often paralyzes us as we grow up. We fear those who are different. We fear the ticking clock of our lives. We fear learning and trying.

Jennifer read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. I did, too. This summer it's my nephew William Harvey's turn. It’s his first assignment for Austin High School's Academy for Global Studies. Soon he will take a seat on a bus much like the one on which Jennifer and I met long ago. He will try desperately to find his place in the world. Like school children have for 50 years, he will look into the pages of this book of youth and, I hope, realize, as Scout did, that, despite the fear and uncertainty of the future, every new day is a gift of adventure if we choose to embrace it. I urge my nephew to dance forward with an open mind and an open heart, and embrace the possibilities.

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