Quiz Question 8th grade: What is the line Atticus Finch uses in To Kill a Mockingbird when he knows he’s got you beat, and he’s about to prove it to you?

Answer:  see title of this blog post. 


I had to throw my final unit plans for this school year out the window, when Gabe, a young man in my “Poe” Language Arts class, put it on the line. We’d gotten into a deep discussion about rules, authority, laws, truth, justice. He hadn’t spoken much, and I pointedly asked his opinion about something (forgetting now what it was, even – but I think it was something along the lines of “tell me about your school experience this year”) when a flush came into his cheeks.

He wouldn’t make eye contact. He was intently studying something in the design of the floor tile near his desk. I could barely hear him when he said “Mrs Hamlin, school’s okay, but we NEVER get to speak our minds.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m asking you to speak it right now!”

“No, you’re not,” he said, “you’re asking me to tell you what you want to hear, that school prepares us to speak our minds later. I mean, we don’t get to speak them as they are now.” 

The kid would have surprised me less if he’d dropped to the floor and given me a choreographed dance to Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” wearing a leotard and combat boots.

Gabe isn’t shy. He’s smart as a whip, quick-witted and funny. But he’s been disengaged often this year — and in the three seconds after he said that to me, like cogs in a giant wheel, all the times I’ve wondered why he’s seemed so vacant or why he’s somewhere else in his mind, fit together perfectly. It was like fitting the last piece into a thousand-piece puzzle of a monochromatic beach. Very satisfying – and then, when you stand back and look – quite beautiful.

“Do you really think so?” I said, all Atticus Finch.

Except unlike Atticus, who always seems to know precisely what he’s doing and saying, I actually spent the next three weeks pretending I’d known what was coming all along — because what I said then was, “then welcome to the Slam Poetry unit.”

In case you haven’t discovered Button Poetry or Get Lit, you should know: Slam poetry is nothing short of setting the world on fire. It’s art that goes deep inside, figures out the complicated landscape created by feelings and experience, then comes out again as words that reach out and grab you by the throat. Sometimes they rhyme.

I had never written or performed a slam poem when I boldly announced the new work that would take us through the end of our school year. I just went for it.

People wonder what it is teenagers think and dream about these days, what they would say if given a microphone and 3 minutes of undivided attention in which to say it. Here are some excerpts from their work.

I see, want this to be, the science generation/ I see, our planet needs, energy alternation/But instead, we are fed, peer pressure and conformity/And apparently/It is insulting to be nerdy/Thank you for calling me nerd/I am encouraged, I am not hurt/When people say I’m intelligent and acknowledge it/One day I’ll help save this generation — Julian

I know what stress is like/it’s the dark locked up cage inside of you/it’s the restraints for your brain/the cuts and marks on sections of body/it’s quicksand/a black cloak around your body/a black hole just for you — Marley

We’re expected to have this perfect life/But you can’t attract too much attention because/then you are a try-hard, and for some reason trying is a bad thing — Gwen

Thank you, bully/For pulling that chair out from under me/Thank you for calling me ugly, for staring, for laughing/That made me feel a whole lot better about myself/Now I can’t take a stroll without feeling a hole in my soul where you’re sold on the fact that I’m not the perfect key for the keyhole/Feels like everyone’s watching me on parole/Now I’m always on patrol/You can’t control how I unfold my goals/The role you play in my whole life is an ant on a hill in front of my garage/You’re getting yourself nowhere — Kate K

I think about it/Try and concentrate/I agree with this and not that/But if I agree with that I have to agree with that/And what about them and they?/I try to contemplate/The world isn’t just black or white/Sweet or sour/I can’t write about a problem I think is both wrong/And right. — Eden

Anxiety feels like you’re alone in a dark room/Eyes sketched on the walls all sear into you — Tiana

When trying to fit in you’re a pretzel/Turning and twisting yourself to be someone else/You lose yourself/Your sense of you/There is space for everyone — Shauna

Look at them/Call them by the gender they wish to be/The gender they truly are/Since birth, you have been assigned/One gender or the other/Pink and yellow, blue and red/The colors of who you are supposed to be/It doesn’t matter who you actually are/This/Or that/Or he/Or she/Or them/Love one way/It isn’t working — Kate U

It is hard not to be brutal in such a brutal world — Ryan

Moonlight Sonata and Mona Lisa/And other achievements galore/Were invented/Created/Discovered/By people who chose to study not less/But more — Nate

Divorce/It has no remorse/Pushing you ’til you start crying/About all the fighting, all the lying/It’s so unsatisfying/When you flirt with that woman over there/It’s like you don’t even care/You know this is just leading to another affair/You used to be the perfect pair/But now you’d rather be elsewhere/This keeps me awake at night/It makes my heart ache/Heartbreak/It makes my whole world shake/Like a never ending earthquake/Do you remember our devotions?/Do you still care about our emotions?/I feel like I’m drowning in the deepest of oceans/Remember those vows? They weren’t temporary/This is scary/It’s like you didn’t even know what getting married/really was/It’s not something you just wash down the drain/It’s not something you suffer through – like agonizing pain/Not for passing blame or gaining fame/Remember, you gave this family its last name. — Kaleb

We spent three weeks watching slam poets perform, then writing and drafting our own work, and finally performing our original poems (yup, I had to write one, too) in our classroom. We built a stage with white lights and sheets draped behind. We had cafe tables, white linens, flowers and cafe fare as we watched and encouraged each other – just like an open mic night.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I do not despair about teenagers in the world. I work every day with young minds full of wonder, critical thought and deep reflection. I despair only when they aren’t heard. Entrenched in the daily grind of school, I hadn’t been really listening, and Gabe helped me to tune in. I’m so glad I did. Because as Atticus says, you never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 

The cool thing about teenagers is that we’ve all been there. We can both understand them and listen to them anew as they make their way. After all, to not do so would be like killing a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?