There’s a scene in To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my all-time favorite summer reads, where Mayella Ewell, a poor white girl in rural Alabama, tells the court Tom Robinson, a poor black man, hit her and raped her.
Mayella is distraught and tearful as she gives her testimony. Atticus Finch, the defense attorney, sympathizes with her plight and is slow, quiet and respectful of her on the stand. Mayella has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She has grown up rough, hungry and neglected. She has few, if any, friends, and really just wants to be like other teenage girls.
As Atticus brings Tom Robinson to his feet, those in the courtroom become aware of the accused and his withering left arm. It becomes apparent he could not have hit Mayella with his left hand. Mayella has to follow her set of lies all the way to the end. Atticus slowly insinuates it may have been her father, Bob Ewell, who actually struck her.
To the average reader, Atticus moves with great compassion and could have easily taken her to task on the stand. The author, Harper Lee, shows us that pivotal moment when Tom Robinson expresses his own sympathy for Mayella Ewell. He seals his fate at that moment as it is inexcusable for a black man to have pity for a white woman—especially in the south during the Great Depression.
I had a visit last week with an interesting professor at Drury University. She told me of a class she is offering next week called Building Community Through the Arts. In this course, she builds on the Ruby Payne framework for understanding poverty in our communities and schools.
I have taken some of the Payne training before and was reminded how important it is for us to walk a mile each day in the shoes of those around us. Poverty, financial stress, job changes, promotions and even good luck can make people unpredictable, nervous and funny.
Dealing with poverty involves several mindsets. It’s important to give everyone respect, dignity and compassion at all times. It’s even important when he/she is being a jerk.
As a single mom in the early 1990s, I began going back to school and juggling jobs to help myself in my quest for new opportunities, adventures and connections. I often felt guilty for the nights and weekends I had to be away from my son—who grew up way too quickly, it seems.
But I did make extra efforts to create quality time by going to museums, battlefields and favorite landmarks with him. We didn’t have a lot of extra money, but we always had resources for a quick picnic, some ice cream or even a slice of watermelon.
I still remember a time when I ended up babysitting for a friend and took the boy with us to a swimming pool/birthday party and to get ice cream. Tears streamed down my cheeks and Jake’s as he went on and on about never having been to a public pool before and how he had never had an ice cream cone, either.
At first, I thought, he was pulling our legs. These were two things we had taken for granted. But, the wide-eyed, sincere look on his face as he licked up and down the sides of that ice cream cone told me different. In fact, we had to stop him before he took a big bite out of the bottom end!
Atticus was right in giving Mayella Ewell the respect and dignity she deserved in that courtroom, whether she knew it or not. If Harper Lee had written a sequel to this Pulitzer-winning novel, I wish it would have featured Mayella Ewell becoming a teacher and earning her way out of the hopeless existence the Ewells faced—day in and day out. I would like to have seen her join the Peace Corps or head west to the shipyards during World War II.
I would like for and older/wiser Mayella to have told us about the discomfort she felt when Atticus was nice to her, how she wasn’t used to getting that kind of attention and how, ultimately, she didn’t think she deserved it—because she had no self-esteem and no solid role models in her life. In my mind, I can’t forgive the Mayella Ewell who put the nail in the proverbial coffin for the ill-fated Tom Robinson.
But I do have compassion for the Mayella Ewell who was able to take those dire circumstances and turn them around.
(Kim McCully-Mobley is a local educator, historian, speaker and storyteller. In the summer months, she works on several research-related writing projects of her own under the auspices of The Ozarkian Spirit. She can be reached at 417-229-2094.)