Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the book of my youth. I didn’t grow up poor in Depression-era Alabama, but I identified with Scout as I read it several times in my teens. My childhood was a middle-class family in the integrated Bronx, but Scout and I shared a house full of books and a lawyer-father blessed with a firm, centering integrity. Later, studying journalism at NYU in the 1980s, I heard that if you wanted to learn what good writing was, read Mockingbird every year.
I saw Danny this week. He was walking down Church Street in downtown New Haven, pretending he had somewhere to go. I knew better. Luckily I saw him in time and could slow my pace so that he didn't catch my eye. I didn't want to hear it from him again. Not yet.
In 1969, I dropped out of college, moved to Racine, Wisconsin, and worked for a community action program and then for a welfare rights organization. The focus of my work was tenants’ rights—helping tenants negotiate with landlords over things like rent and housing violations. Among my many indelible memories from that year was the situation of a family with six children.
When a child is ignoring basic responsibilities, parents rely on a well-known parenting technique to make a point. Mom looks her ten-year-old in the eye while holding a toothpaste tube in one hand and the cap in the other. “This is called toothpaste,” she says, “and this is called a cap. They go together.” The Lord God is not beyond impatience and remedial instruction when people need a reminder about neglected responsibilities. God held a basket of ripened summer fruit beneath Amos’s nose and said, “Amos, what do you see here?” The prophet, sensing that God was serious, didn’t bother joking. “A basket of summer fruit,” he replied. With that brief exchange, strangely similar to a parent remedially instructing a child, the doors opened to a flood of divine wrath.