Oct. 27, 2016
Ninth graders visit with author via videoconference
Nearly 50 Upper St. Clair High School ninth graders – along with several area high schools – recently talked with Marja Mills, author of “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.”
This opportunity was made possible through a videoconference sponsored by the Fox Chapel Area High School library.
Marja Mills spoke with students about her experiences getting to know Harper Lee, the reclusive author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Ms. Mills was a reporter at the Chicago Times when she was sent to Monroeville, Ala. in the hopes of landing an interview with Harper Lee –– a feat no other writer had been able to achieve. Ms. Mills not only interviewed Ms. Lee but also wrote a book about her time with Ms. Lee and Ms. Lee’s sister, Alice.
When Ms. Mills was invited into the Lee sisters’ home, she noticed many things including a manual typewriter on the dining room table; the home had no air conditioning, even though they were in the Deep South; and there was no computer anywhere. Alice Lee commented that they were not caught up to the 21st century, or the 20th century, for that matter.
Ms. Mills asked students in attendance if they noted the playful language that Harper Lee used in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Ms. Lee used that same language in their conversations during all of their visits. The Lees said that the character of Atticus was based on their father, who was alive to see Harper win a Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and got to meet actor Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus in the 1962 movie. Unfortunately, Mr. Lee passed away before the movie aired.
Ms. Mills also noted that Harper Lee did not care for her celebrity status and, obviously, preferred to stay out of the limelight. Following the success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Ms. Lee struggled with the pressures of writing another book.
Hayley, an Upper St. Clair student, asked Ms. Mills the first question of the day. She asked if Ms. Mills thought of Harper Lee as a friend or just the subject of her novel. She answered that Harper Lee was most definitely a friend. They spent a lot of time together during initial visits and then more when she lived next door to the Lees for more than a year. They would go on car rides and meet over coffee or lunch, which happened many times at McDonald’s or Burger King, some of Harper Lee’s favorite spots. Most of all, Harper Lee loved introducing Ms. Mills to southern culture.
Another Upper St. Clair student, Haley, asked if they had ever discussed Harper Lee’s response from the public toward her views on segregation. Ms. Mills said that they did talk about that and that the Lees’ little town in Alabama had a hard time with the popularity of Lee’s book and did not like the spotlight on the town.
“Since the ninth graders in attendance will read “To Kill A Mockingbird” this year, hopefully, what they learned during the video conference will add to their reading experience,” Janine Despines, Upper St. Clair High School librarian, said.
The videoconference was organized by Mrs. Despines and fellow librarian Debbie Rentschler with assistance from Susan Lovett, technology systems specialist. Students from Ms. Caty Dewalt’s and Ms. Christina Guarnaccio’s ninth grade English classes participated in the event.