I was born and raised in a small city ( pop.25,000) on the Canadian prairies. We were poor, but my sister and I didn't know it, because Mom and Dad made sure we had everything we needed, even if they had to go without some things. And everyone else in our neighbourhood was poor as well, so we didn't notice. It was a very sheltered life of family and friends and school. We couldn't afford to travel and only got one channel on the TV.
I started reading at the age of 5. My older sister taught me during many days of playing school in which she was always the teacher. I devoured books, I would read anything. If there was nothing new to read, I turned to the set of Encyclopedia Britannica Dad had won in a curling bonspiel.
I read the usual books like Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, Understood Betsy and Little Women. But when I was 11, I read "To Kill A Mockingbird". It literally took my breath away. For the first time, I realized that a book could do more than entertain, or pass the hours on a rainy day. I learned that a book could change a person. And maybe even a society.
There were no people of colour in our neighbourhood. They were all English, Ukrainian, German, Dutch etc. In other words, white. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was my first exposure to the idea that people would hate another human being simply because of the colour of his skin. How could anyone read about Tom and not be moved? How could Harper Lee's magnificent story-telling leave any room in a heart for racism?
When he was found guilty my young heart broke. And later, when his wife just "fell down in the dirt" after hearing of his death, I physically felt that blow, her anguish and grief. The unfairness of it all.
As I grew older I became more exposed to life. I saw, in my little city, and via TV, in the bigger world, the kind of prejudice that Harper Lee described. We could watch TV from the U.S. now and I saw Martin Luther King and other brave men and women marching for civil rights. I attended a larger school for junior high, and there were students there of Asian, native Canadian and other backgrounds. I remembered what Atticus said,
" You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
I thought about what it would be like to walk in someone else's skin, to feel hatred and to be abused because of bigotry. I vowed that I would never treat someone differently because of the colour of their skin. I wonder how many others came to this same decision after reading "To Kill a Mockingbird". I suspect that many of our generation were changed by this book, and that in turn has helped to change our society.
Since Harper Lee wrote those words, there have been many victories on the road to equality. But we still have a long way to go. It will take continued courage. According to Atticus that means:
"Knowing 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."
We just have to be willing to begin anyway, and I am confident that we will win.