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How Harper Lee changed my life

Shoppers read about a Chicago program involving the

Shoppers read about a Chicago program involving the 40th anniversary edition of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" Sept. 10, 2001 at a Borders Books and Music store in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images / Tim Boyle

I was 15 — a high school sophomore — when I first met Atticus, Jem and Scout Finch.

English class that year was devoted to American Literature. My teacher, Ms. Mahoney, had a way of making every story come alive, of making us care deeply about characters like Holden Caulfield (“The Catcher in the Rye”) and Willy Loman (“Death of a Salesman”).

But when she introduced me to Harper Lee, my life, my perspective, my understanding of the world changed. From the first page of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee brought me into Maycomb, Alabama — and a piece of me never left. Lee put us, as young readers, in Scout’s skin and had us walk around in it, just as Atticus Finch recommended in the novel. We saw the world of Maycomb — the racial injustice, the complexities, the oft-wrong stereotypes and assumptions, and the small joys and big worries of a small southern town — all through Scout’s eyes.

And what a world it was. I was a suburban kid from New Jersey, growing up in a virtual bubble, far from most inequalities and hatreds. Lee, who died on Friday in Alabama, did what no history book could do; she popped the bubble, opening our eyes to a world far different from our own — and yet, in some ways, exactly the same. After all, I identified with Scout — with her curiosity, her impatience, her fears, her triumphs, her desire to understand.

But Atticus was my hero. The Atticus I knew represented everything right with the world. His children, I thought, were oh-so-lucky to have a father like him — a man who could stand up for what was right, a man who could lead by example, a man who could let his children see the beauty and the ugly in the world — and teach them lessons so many adults still haven’t learned.

Courage, he said, is “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Then, there’s his admonishment that Scout can’t “really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” And, of course, there’s Atticus’ instruction to Jem that became the basis for the book’s title. “Remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Scout soon understands that Atticus was telling her not to harm an innocent creature, whose only task was to make music.

Lee’s gift was in her storytelling, in her ability to paint a picture with words and make us care so deeply, and in the poetry she made out of prose. But more important, Atticus’s lessons to his children were Lee’s lessons to her readers, especially young ones like me. I took them all in — and haven’t forgotten them in the many years since. Even now, I read Mockingbird nearly every year, to revisit my friends, the Finches, and to revisit the lessons we as adults still must learn. Last year, I introduced my daughter to the world of Maycomb — and Lee, through Atticus, taught her, too.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was Lee’s only novel until the controversial “Go Set a Watchman” was published last year. Seen by many as the initial draft manuscript that formed the basis for Mockingbird, Watchman’s portrayal of Atticus, as a far more complex figure who backed segregation and wasn’t quite as noble as he appeared, was decried by many. But for me, Watchman simply gave more lessons to learn: Even the best writers can become even better writers as they edit, rewrite, and develop their work; and people, even beloved fictional lawyers and the authors we love, are complicated, imperfect and layered.

I am a better person, a better writer, a better thinker, and a better parent because of Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Her death shook me deeply. But I am lucky, because I can pay another visit to Maycomb, anytime. “To Kill a Mockingbird” will always be there on my bookshelf, just like Atticus, as he watched over his children as the story closed. “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.