Monroeville, Alabama—you couldn’t ask for a prettier day. The sky is cloudless. The town square looks like it did when Harper Lee’s book was first written.
And I’ll never forget reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the first time. I was a chubby kid with a very bald head when I first read Atticus Finch’s words:
“Hold your head high, and keep your fists down.”
Let me explain the baldness: I was fourteen. I’d just lost my hair in a senseless act of home-haircutting. The clipper guard on Mama’s electric razor slipped. I bore a bald spot the size of an aircraft landing strip.
To fix this, Mama scalped me.
When I saw my reflection in the mirror, I cried. My mother kissed my bald head and said, “It’ll grow back.”
To cheer me up, my aunt gave me a paperback book. I read it in one day. The next afternoon, I wrote a five-hundred-word story. I entitled it: TO SHAVE A MOCKINGBIRD.
Many years later, as an adult, I drove to Monroeville to cover the stage adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD. I’d been invited by veteran journalist, stage-actor, and highly-decorated Methodist, Connie Baggett.
I’ll never forget it.
I arrived in Monroeville at sunset. It was mid-March, but outside it was colder than a brass toilet in a single-wide trailer.
I met Connie in the parking lot of the famed courthouse. She took me on an impromptu tour of the whole town.
“I used to cover Monroeville,” she said. “When I worked for the Press Register, this was part of my territory.”
She was a real newspaper journalist. She was the kind I had wished I could’ve been when I was a kid, but never was. And she had good stories.
She told me about the first time she’d interviewed Harper Lee. She told me local tales and folklore. She pointed out the best barbecue joint in town—on Rutherford Street.
Then, she parked at the cemetery. She pointed at a headstone through the windshield.
“That’s her,” she said. “The one and only Miss Lee.”
She quoted a few lines from Mockingbird.
Then, right there at the tomb of Nelle Harper Lee, Connie told me I was a “good writer.”
Her words hit me. And those few words will be with me forever. You don’t forget when someone says you’re good at something.
Me. A kid trapped in an adult’s body. Me. Someone who once wanted to be a journalist, but hit too many roadblocks. Me. Someone who finally got around to finishing high school in his mid-twenties; college in his thirties.
Me. The late bloomer.
Once, I interviewed for a newspaper job in the city. I was credential-less, uneducated, and wearing a necktie. The editor told me: “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for someone who can really write.”
You don’t forget when someone tells you you’re not good at something, either.
Anyway Connie took me to the rehearsal for MOCKINGBIRD. I sat in a folding chair—almost like a journalist—making mental notes. A local minister recited the words of Atticus Finch:
“Hold your head high,” Atticus said to a child wearing overalls. “…No matter what anyone says to you…”
After rehearsal, I stayed up until two in the morning in a hotel room, writing five hundred words about this town. It’s funny what words can do. They can do a lot.
That wasn’t very long ago.
Tonight, I will stand inside a wooden courtroom that I once saw in my boyhood imagination. I’m telling stories to a room of folks. Some folks are accomplished. Some are highly educated. Some are successful.
And I‘ll bet some are probably like me. They don’t believe in themselves, they feel overlooked, and they wonder if anything good awaits them in this world.
Yes, it does.
Bad haircuts don’t last forever.
Hold your head high.