There is a double gulp scene in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Scout observes a painful interaction between her teacher, Miss Caroline, and a fellow student, Walter Cunningham. Because Walter doesn’t have money for lunch, Miss Caroline wrongly assumes he has simply forgotten it. She offers Walter a quarter and tells him that he can repay her the following day. When he refuses, Miss Caroline becomes agitated.
Scout, the young narrator of the story, understands the situation. Walter can’t take the money because he’d never be able to repay the loan. The Cunninghams are a large and desperately poor family. (They’ve paid Scout’s father in turnip greens for his legal help.)When Scout tries to explain why Walter can’t accept the quarter, Miss Caroline can’t grasp what’s going on and gets so frustrated that she ends up slapping Scout.
I thought of this scene as I read about the interaction between Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. I am sure Professor Gates is a fine man. He just happened to be tired and sick from a long trip abroad, and he was probably very frustrated when he realized he couldn’t get in to his own home. He was, as anyone in his situation might be, offended by the officer’s asking him for his identification and assumed, wrongly I believe, that he was being treated this way because of his race.
In the same way, I am sure that Officer Crowley is a good man, and he was just doing his duty in responding to a call about a break-in. Every time an officer responds to a 911, his heart must start to pound. And after confronting the would-be vandal, he was taken back by Gates’ tone and word choice. Again, this is a very understandable reaction.
In the end we are left with two good, apparently well-intentioned men who spark a polarizing controversy that eventually involves the White House. All of this has a familiar ring for folks who work in boys’ schools because, while the details are different, the basic plot line is profoundly familiar. (See “Wawa and the Red Crayon” for details.)
President Obama sees this as a “teachable moment” and I agree. As part of that teaching, I recommend we all re-read Harper Lee’s novel, so that the next time we’re in a pinch, we can give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Even Miss Caroline might approve.