What Real Courage Is


"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

That may be Atticus Finch's most memorable piece of fatherly advice in Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the book is full of the wisdom with which this lonely widower raised his two children and tried to teach them how to act as moral beings in an immoral world.

His daughter Jean Louise, or "Scout," as he and everyone else called her, tells us many of the things her father said to her and her brother Jem when they were growing up in the 1930s in the little town of Maycomb, Alabama. But preaching wasn't his principal means of fathering. Mostly he taught by example.

Mrs. Dubose was one opportunity. The unpleasant and ailing old widow always had something nasty to say to Jem and Scout when they passed her house.

"You just hold your head high and be a gentleman," Atticus told Jem. "Whatever she says to you, it's your job not to let her make you mad." When he himself passed her house, he would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly, and say, "Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening."

Of course, Scout points out, he never said "like a picture of what." And when Mrs. Dubose made hateful comments about their father's legal defense of a black man accused of raping a white girl, Jem retaliated by cutting off all the old woman's camellias.

To make amends, Atticus made the boy read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon for a month. She used the readings to divert her mind while she progressively reduced her doses of morphine to which she'd been medically addicted for years and from which she was determined to free herself before she died. That's what Atticus wanted Jem to see.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is," he explained to his son, "instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Atticus knew he was going to lose his own battle -- one against racial prejudice. But if he didn't take the black man's case and do his best, he would lose not only his self-respect but also his moral authority as a father. So he wouldn't quit. As he explained to his children, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

He was the kind of man to whom communities look in times of crisis and ask to do what everyone else is afraid to do themselves. As Miss Maudie told Scout, the people of Maycomb had actually paid him the highest tribute. "We trust him to do right."

This remarkable novel inspired an equally remarkable movie in which Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for bringing Atticus Finch to life on the screen. You may have seen it when it first came out over 30 years ago, and you can still find it in the classics section of most video stores.

Those of us who are fathers ourselves, however, might try reading or re-reading the book before we see the movie. Read it with your children. You can even do it together. Families used to read out loud. This book easily lends itself to that ancient ritual. Then when you're finished, you can get out the movie one night.

While your children watch Scout and Jem's rich and exciting summer adventures, you and I can watch the best primer there is on the art of being a father. Because Atticus Finch manages that difficult mission as well as any man ever has.

What's his secret?

Of course, a big part of it's his own character -- his decency and moral courage. Most of us will never be able to live up to the high standard he sets. But watch how he also does things that any of us can do, if we set our minds to it.

More than anything else, he pays attention. Day in, day out, this man gives his children his ceaseless, caring, devoted attention. Scout and Jem are more important to him than anything else. The proper raising of them is the test by which he evaluates everything he does in his life.

"Sometimes I think I'm a total failure as a parent," he says. "But I'm all they've got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him. If I couldn't meet his eye . . . I'll know I've lost him. I don't want to lose him and Scout, because they're all I've got."

In the end the standard he sets is simply one of purposefulness. The man intends to be the best father he can, and he's prepared to devote his life to that goal.

At the end of the story, his children are rescued from that last harrowing flight through the woods. His son lies in bed with his broken arm in a cast. Scout leaves us with this final image of her father.

"He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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