Artists I admire: Harper Lee

Last week we lost a great American writer, Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel and has been for a long time. Since the summer of 1989.

I'm not going to try to eulogize Lee here, as I don't know enough about her as a person. I will say that the fact that she produced one international sensation and then essentially nothing else of note until the recent release of Go Set a Watchman implies something about her as an artist: that maybe she found satisfaction from telling her one very important and impactful story of Scout Finch and her father Atticus and didn't feel that she needed to say anything more. I envy Lee's ability to feel satisfied with just one story. But beyond that, I have deep feelings of gratitude to Harper Lee because her story saved me at a critical time in my teenage years.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1989, between my junior and senior year in high school, while I was away from home for a week at American Legion Jersey Boys State. Boys State is a program where boys selected from various communities attend a week-long leadership experience on the campus of Rider University. Delegates are assigned to "cities," and then elect governing officials at every level, up to electing a governor for "Boys State." Four delegates were selected to attend Boys State from my high school, and I was one of them.

My parents dropped me off on a Sunday in June, and I would be there practicing civic engagement and responsibility until Friday. I was nervous about going, as that point in my life, I didn't have many friends that were boys, so the idea of spending a week with only boys and men felt a little terrifying. The boys at my school kind of gave me a hard time. Not as bad as other people, but I got called "gay" and "fag" a lot. Or asked if I supported gay rights, and when I said "yes" because I thought it was the right thing to do, there were a lot of snickers and jokes. And while I was advised by adults to just let all the names and jokes roll off my back, they stuck there, feeling very heavy and embarrassing. I didn't know I was gay at that point, so getting called those words really frustrated me. My one hope for Boys State was that maybe if I was around a bunch of boys who didn't know me, I would escape these labels that had been assigned to me by my hometown peers.

Boys State started off alright. I somehow became the Election Board Official (EBO) for my city, which was plenty of responsibility for me, and I played in the Boys State Concert Band. The rest of the time was spent marching from place to place as a city, chanting marching slogans, wearing khaki pants and official Boys State polo shirts, and I can't remember much else. It clearly left no impression. But other things did. Like the name calling.

My quest to leave behind the slurs and jokes from my hometown ended rather abruptly within the first couple days at Boys State. For some reason, the slurs started to fly at me, most notably when we were trying to nominate boys to run as representatives to the Boys State House, and I was called a "faggot" for counting the votes accurately rather than fixing it for someone to win. A great example of how the boys of Boys State learned appropriate civic responsibility. None of the adults stopped that behavior, or no one that I could see, so it continued throughout the rest of the week.

I responded to this development by attending band rehearsals and spending the rest of the time in my dorm room reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm not really sure why I even had a copy with me as I don't remember packing it, but reading that book that week saved me. I took great solace in the lessons learned by Scout Finch and the justice fought for by her father, Atticus. All of this against the back drop of supposedly learning about the great mechanisms of democracy while being called a faggot.

To this day, I haven't gone back and re-read Harper Lee's book. I've often thought about it, but for some reason I can't bring myself to do it. I have a distinct memory of one of the guys from the band coming back to my room with me and trying to engage me in a wrestling match, and as he pinned me, I just let him. In retrospect, he may have been trying for something more than wrestling, but that's beside the point. When he released me out of the headlock, I remember him saying, "You don't even fight back." And he was right. I didn't. I didn't know how. But I think reading Lee's book started to teach me how to fight back in ways that stay with me today, almost 27 years later. I fight back through my creative and educational work, hoping to affect even just one person at a time. By telling stories that matter to me. By telling the truth about the way I experience the world, hopefully in a way that people can hear and see. Just like when Scout finally sees Boo Radley for the first time. She sees him for what he is. She sees the truth, rather than something fabricated or assumed.

Boys State was one of the worst experiences I had as a teenager, truly sad and disappointing. But those circumstances gave me a reason to read Harper Lee's novel, and my life changed as a result. For being an artist who shaped so many other artists yet who seemed satisfied with just one accomplishment, for giving millions of people the gift of Scout Finch and her discoveries about her world, and for teaching an unknowing gay kid what it means to live in a democracy where all people matter, Harper Lee is the artist I admire for this week.