Monday, June 21, 2010


Three Mondays ago, as I was getting my classroom ready for the school day, one of my students walked in carrying a Tupperware container. Smiling even before she entered the room, she walked straight up to me and said, "I've been wanting to since we read To Kill A Mockingbird this winter, but I finally was able to this weekend. I made it!"

"Made what?"

"Lane cake." She set the container in front of me. "It took forever. I know why it is so special that Miss Maudie makes it, and it is so good. I brought you a piece." It was beautiful, a silver white cake with a cooked white frosting and boozy, rich coconutty filling. I ate it all before the first break of the school day.

Each winter, my freshman classes read To Kill a Mockingbird. My freshmen read Of Mice and Men too, but with that book, I feel as if my brain will drip out of my ears every time I have to teach it again. On the other hand, To Kill a Mockingbird always feels new and meaningful. This year, as I led my students to the textbook room to pick up the books, we encountered a junior who was out running errands for his teacher. He asked my kids what book we were going to pick up. When my students told him we were on our way to get To Kill a Mockingbird, he sighed and said "Oh, you are going to fall in love with that book." Seriously, he—not an AP or honors kid, otherwise I would know him—told the kids that they were going to fall in love with a book. And at the end of the To Kill a Mockingbird unit this year, one of my students stuck around after class. Once everyone was gone, he said to me, "Remember how that guy told us we were going to fall in love with this book? Well, I did."

Man, I live for these moments.

Miss Maudie's most famous line in To Kill a Mockingbird is to tell Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill mockingbirds because "they don't do anything but sing their hearts out for us." Metaphorically, Miss Maudie may be right, but literally, she's flat out wrong. Mockingbirds are assholes. If you have an outdoor pet you know this; mockingbirds are the birds that harass your cat or dog every time the poor animal accidentally looks in the birds' direction. I've seen mockingbirds doubleteam a cat, pecking around it's face until the cat found cover under a car. If I'm out working in the garden and I get too close to a mockingbird's nest, even though I mean no ill intention, one of these birds will come swooping at my face, flapping and threatening until I give it enough room. And as for singing their hearts out? A friend commented recently on the annoying bird imitating a car alarm that she thought she had left behind in her old apartment. Yup, that car alarm bird you hear? The one that goes "eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw, wooooot wooooot wooooot, waha waha waha" and so on is a mockingbird. So much for singing.

No creature, mockingbird or otherwise, is completely innocent.

Of course, I know what Miss Maudie was trying to say; in the novel, she is one of the many "mockingbirds." As much as I love Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo, and oh my, hero-extraordinaire, Atticus, it is Miss Maudie who lives most vibrantly in my head. In the 1930's in a very small Southern town, she's a self-sufficient widowed woman who rejects most of the town's tradition of prejudice, and who works hard every day in her garden, wearing men's overalls. She's sharp tongued, but she treats all sort of people—children, even people with whom she is angry—as equal to her, and though she is a woman of deep faith, rejects unthinking "religiosity." She's not perfect. Though she rejects many of the strictures of her town, she is a product of her era and geography, and doesn't always put up a big enough fight against the -isms that surround her. Scout and Jem, the novel's main characters, look up to Miss Maudie, galvanized by her strengths, limited by her weaknesses.

Now that school has just ended, I spend entire days outside. The other morning, I rolled out of bed, put on shorts, a sportsbra, and my high school gym shirt (the best sweat-in shirt ever—I don't know what it is made out of, but it stays so much cooler any other shirt I've ever owned, and it has lasted me 20 years). In the heat, I dug out the weedy sod, laid down hardware cloth to keep the gophers out, and built a two foot wall of broken concrete. I filled the new sweet potato bed with a combination of garden soil, coconut coir, and partly composted leaves. By the end of the day, I knew I had worked hard and my body had that same relaxed, heavy-muscle feeling that happens after too many glasses of wine. Even after I was finished, I had a hard time making myself go inside, and instead, found more chores, there are always chores, to do outside until the sun set. Harper Lee writes, "Miss Maudie hated her house: time spent indoors was time wasted." I will not waste time.

It is hard for me not to see myself in Miss Maudie, my strengths and weaknesses. When I was in high school, a friend once told me the image that he had of me in my future. He imagined that I'd live in a small town and ride a bike everywhere with a basket full of flowers on the front. I'd know all the neighborhood kids' names and share my flowers with them. It's a cheesy image, I know, and he was teasing me, but in some ways, I hope it isn't too far off. But I don't want to give my neighborhood kids flowers, I want to give them words and sentences and logic and argument. Meanwhile, as I aim to do all of these things, I know I fail at many others, and like Miss Maudie, cannot always see the changes I should be making, the changes my students need me to make.

Despite her weaknesses, Miss Maudie teaches that scuppernongs are for sharing, that words have power, that homegrown and homemade is meaningful, and that, even when the world seems terrifying and so wrong, things are changing for the better. I hope to accomplish the same.

What a fascinating school year it was.


Meyer Lemon Ice Cream

I may not be making Lane cakes for all the people in my life who deserve them, but I will make ice cream as often as I can. And since my tree is still spitting out lemons, now super-ripe and fattened as blimpy grapefruits, I can make this perfectly balanced lemon ice cream. It's silky, just the right amount of tangy and sweet, and rich enough so that a little scoop is very satisfying.

You will need:

2 fat Meyer lemons

1 cup heavy cream

4 egg yolks, beaten smooth

1 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1 cup cold whole milk

To make the ice cream:

Wash the lemons well, and remove the yellow zest with a fine grater. Juice the lemons; you will need one half cup, and you'll likely end up with more. In a large saucepan, stir together the lemon zest, one half cup of the juice, the cream, the egg yolks, the sugar, and the pink of salt. Stir the ingredients until they're combined, the place them on medium-low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens a little and is just about to simmer. Remove the mixture from the heat.

Pour the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the grated peel, ensuring a silken smooth ice cream. Pour the mixture into a lidded container, and place the container into the refrigerator to chill for at least four hours, but preferably longer.

After the mixture has chilled, add the remaining cup of cold milk and stir to combine thoroughly. To finish the ice cream, follow the directions your ice cream maker provides.

Serve this to a mockingbird you know, someone a little bit of an asshole, a little bit of an innocent. We're all mockingbirds, after all.


Wendy said...

See, I love reading "Of Mice and Men" with my kids but just can't get enthusiastic about "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the classroom (despite loving it myself). My favourite Steinbeck moment was when, with a very poor S3 (13/14) class, I read out the last chapter. At the point when George pulled the trigger one of the boys, who was very troubled and not at all engaged with learning, threw his book against the wall in distress. He asked to go stand outside and cool off. When I went out to see him, he was almost in tears. He apologised for the outburst and then we had a long conversation about George's decision. That was all. It meant so much though. To me and to him.
Ain't teaching great?
You're killing me with the meyer lemons, by the way. Will taste them one day.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I like this one muchly. I have a piece I'll finish someday about looking for an Atticus house -- plain white clapboard, porch swing, and a screen door that sings and slams.

(You can send your mockingbirds up here; we love them. But then, I'm fond of blue jays too, and their bragging.)

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

"No creature, mockingbird or otherwise, is completely innocent." Volumes, Christina. Volumes. A beautiful, wonderful post, my friend. You are the kind of teacher who makes people remember teachers.

Christina said...

Wendy: I wish I could send some Meyers to you. It just means you have to head over to my side of the planet some day. I'm so glad you had that OMM experience with your student--he'll never forget the power that a book had for him. Don't get me wrong, my students love Of Mice and Men, but I guess I'm done with it. What am I talking about? I still cry over it every year.

AH: Oh, most the time, I don't hate mockingbirds--they certainly provide plenty of entertainment. The only time they really get on my nerves is when it is 3am and they behave like it is 7am. And I love blue jays, even though they steal eggs out of the nests of my favorite little finches in the camellias. It's hard not to appreciate that brazen flash of blue, seemingly showing off just how naughty they are. I very much look forward to your Atticus-house piece.

Terry B.: Why shucks, you're making me blush! Thank you!

ann said...

I'm reading this and realizing how much I don't remember about that book, but then I'm also thinking, "But mocking birds are so annoooooooyiiiing" and then wham "But mockingbirds are assholes." See, that's why I like you so much, such frugality and precision with words and phrases. It's genius!

Zora said...

Ah, so good! And also self-serving. I'd already been thinking I should read "To Kill a Mockingbird" again--it's been soooo long. And now it seems my complaining about our dumb car-alarm bird in part led to this, and got me motivated. Duly requested from library.

And now I want ice cream too.

Dave @ HappyAcres said...

To Kill A Mockingbird is without a doubt my favorite book. I have read it countless times, and it's been long enough that now I need to read it again. I even named one of my cats Scout (which had a much nicer sound than Jean Louise).

You are so right about mockingbirds. I have seen them flog a cat unmercifully. Come to think of it, they likely did that to poor Scout! A local hospital had to have some removed because they were flogging some of the doctors abd visitors as they came in one door.

I spent my summers much like the kids in the book did, outside, much like you like to do. Our next door neighbor's kids are never outside. I guess they are glued to tv or Wii. Too bad. I hate to waste time indoors too!

It is great that you are turning on your students to such a timeless classic, with so many lessons to be learned inside the covers.

Lucy said...

Been back to read this a few times, coming away with something new each time, not least of which is a hankering for a bowl of lemon ice cream...

I'm with Ann - there's so much I don't remember about it but Oscar's reading for school this year, finding it full of meaning, so I'm going to pull it down off that top shelf and start again tonight.

Happy Summer to you, my friend.

Thomas said...

Meyer lemon ice cream????!!! Yum! I'll have to try to make this when my Meyer lemons ripen this December.

Ginko said...

I love Mockingbirds, even if they aren't so innocent. I think they sing sweeter songs in the morning, kind of a two part harmony with the Morning Doves that hang out in the early cool of the day. I think my songs are sweeter in the morning too. Just discovered your blog, through a very roundabout path, considering that I'm gardening away near the arroyo. I'll be back.

Christina said...

Ann: Gollygeewhizthankyou.

Zora: You're always an inspiration.

Villager: Scout is a perfect name for a Scout. My neighbor kids are outside playing basketball all the time, but they're never exploring or poking around at bugs or doing the things that I always that were inherent to children. It makes me sad. Wonder is such a great part of childhood.

Lucy: I think you're going to love it as an adult. Thanks again for the dukkah recipe.

Thomas: I'm learning countless ways to use the Meyers--there are even a few around still hanging, fat on the tree.

Gingko: Nice to meet you. And welcome. Gardening away near the arroyo, actually adjacent to it, is my favorite thing to do.