Teresa and I walked past a children’s apparel store last week, and in the window we spotted a white long-sleeved shirt inscribed in black letters with the words “Hey Boo.” Well, as a devotee of Harper Lee, this phrase immediately caught my attention as it is perhaps my favorite line from To Kill a Mockingbird. We inquired within to see if they had the piece in a Henry size, but alas, all that they had would only suit small toddlers. We then learned that Hey Boo is a line of Halloween clothing, and while I have no idea whether there is truly a literary allusion working there, it definitely struck a chord in me.
When we got home, I pulled out the novel with the intent of reading aloud to Teresa just the paragraph leading up to Scout’s immortal line, but, of course, I couldn’t stop there. I talked about the context and then read some subsequent passages that explain the unique relationship that Arthur Radley has with Jean Louise and her brother Jem. And, of course, I couldn’t read that material without tearing up, without my voice going all aquiver, without sobbing as softly as I could at one point. This came as no surprise to my wife who has seen me wax emotional at more mundane things, and it didn’t surprise me because I always choked up a bit when I read the end of the book to my students, but, to borrow a term from Mark Twain, the degree of emotional violence that visited me was a little startling. Maybe it’s because I am so many years removed from reading the author’s words that I found that connection more poignant. For whatever reason, I held the book high to protect the pages from tear splashes as I read.
What makes Scout’s line so important? I’m going to assume that if you’re reading my blog, you’ve also read the novel, but if you haven’t and plan on doing so someday, perhaps you should move on to another posting. For those of you staying, Scout’s two-word greeting is nothing short of a monumental revelation. Throughout the story, the Finch kids have been doing their darnedest to contact the phantom inside the Radley house. They’d love nothing more than to have him come out into the daylight and play with them, but they’d settle for a glimpse through one of his windows.When at last Arthur does emerge from his seclusion, it is to rescue the children whom he has been looking out at for years.
It is there, in Jem’s room, that Scout not only comes face to face with the myth she has sought to uncover, but also comes to realize that he is nothing of the sort of imaginings that the neighborhood kids have been spinning. He’s not huge, not bloody, not very scary at all. Instead, he is a shy, pale man who wants nothing more than to return to his home without any trouble.“Hey Boo” works so wonderfully as a greeting because it is just so simple and matter of fact. No fear, no fanfare. Just the type of hello that Jean Louise has been offering to those familiar to her for her whole life.
How often do we discover that something that we have been afraid of is really nothing to worry about? The dog that bark so ferociously when we pass a neighbor’s house but in reality enjoys being petted. Speaking to a large room full of strangers who suddenly smile and chuckle when you begin your presentation with a bit of humor. Finding the courage to approach a famous person in the airport and say hello. So much of what we fear turns out to be nothing like what we fretted about in our minds, though I must admit that when I finally tasted liver for the first time, I found it to be even more disgusting that I had imagined it would be.
On the last page of Mockingbird, as Scout’s father is tucking her into bed after a night of terror and revelation, she tells him about The Gray Ghost, a book in the Seckatary Hawkins series by Robert Schulkers that he has picked up to read as he sits vigil for his unconscious son. She explains how the character of Stoner’s Boy is blamed for all sorts of mischief but turns out to be innocent of it all:
“An’ they chased him ’n’ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things. . .Atticus, was real nice. . . .”
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
My fervent hope is that all of you have an Atticus in your life who is there when you wake up in the morning!