Once Upon a Time, Eleanor C. Parker Had to Defend the Teaching of To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, If You Can Believe It...


It was 1964 and although but a few decades ago, it was another world.

That summer, after a long debate in Washington, not unlike that seen in today’s headlines, which included a 54-day filibuster in the U.S. Senate, a landmark Civil Rights Act became law, essentially ending legal racial discrimination in the United States.

It was also the year the United Methodist Church voted to open its doors to people of all races, actually to “anyone,” again after lengthy soul-searching and at times a not so pleasant “conversation” among the members of its national conference.

And that fall, in 1964, a veteran New Hampshire school teacher was asked to account for the teaching of the book To Kill a Mockingbird in her high school senior English class.

The Laconia, New Hampshire of 1964 was very much like it is today. That is, it was a smallish, but vibrant community where everyone essentially knew everyone else, at least somewhat, but because fewer left the city after coming of age, and with no outlying shopping malls to draw people away to shop and work, life in Laconia then was perhaps tighter and more personal.

Eleanor C. Parker, Laconia High School, circa 1965-1966, Dean Dexter photo

So there was high drama the night the extraordinary Eleanor C. Parker, alumnus of Mount Holyoke and Boston University, went before the Laconia School Board that October to defend herself after a parent had complained to authorities about the Pulitzer Prize winning book her class was studying, published four years earlier by the southern writer, Harper Lee, now considered a classic

Miss Parker was a gracious person and not about the idea of whining or scolding or lecturing city officials or the community at large, about the need for “tolerance” and “acceptance,” all of which she could have probably gotten away with due to her teaching skills and kindly ways. Nor did she drag along her lawyer.

After advising her class that “anyone had a right to express his opinion and was therefore free to object to the book,” or return it unread, she told the board, her students, who she described as “alert and intelligent 18 year-olds, said they liked the book.” Not one objected to it.

“What happens if we are told we cannot discuss the book?” students asked of her, the day she was told to suspend study of To Kill a Mockingbird, pending school board action.

“The question I had to answer and wish now to make clear what my answer is,” Miss Parker told the school board that night, before a room over-flowing with parents and students, “If my class and I (and thus of course ultimately other classes and other teachers) are not allowed to continue to discuss this book, I shall have to ask the Laconia School Board to accept my resignation.”

“When I teach this book, I look at my students and hope that they and I, myself, will learn to be like Atticus (Atticus Finch, the principle character), to meet ignorance, hatred, prejudice, not with more ignorance, hatred, prejudice, but with understanding, goodness, love. This is my purpose in teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” Miss Parker said, in a quiet voice, without a hint of tremor.

According to newspaper reports, “applause was deafening at this point.” And of course, the board unanimously gave a vote of confidence to Miss Parker and the school English Department.

Years earlier, Miss Parker had written about her love of teaching: “One of the most exciting experiences of my life occurs each fall when I meet a group of young personalities, knowing that I have a chance to help them discover things about themselves, about people, and about living…Even on the rainy day when everybody hates everything, especially school, even then I would teach because I love to…Through me the great ideas of the past may be turned by the young minds of the present into the pattern of the future. Since I could not do this of myself, I have a guide. One whom men of all ages have called the Master Teacher.”

That December, Miss Parker was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year (1965), and was later a top finalist for National Teacher of the Year honors, awarded by Look Magazine. For many years thereafter, Miss Parker would serve the people of the city, and their children, as a much beloved and respected teacher at Laconia High School.

To the people who were packed into a meeting room one fall night many years ago, when a lone, unmarried school teacher put a career of over 20 years on the line, that her students might “discover things about themselves, about people, and about living,” would be one of those singular moments in the life of a small community. One that maybe comes along once in a generation, if that, a real life drama which could itself be worthy of Hollywood, and of a best selling book.

Dean Dexter is a former newspaperman, who has served as chairman of the Belknap County commission, the Laconia School Board, and as a state representative from Ward 4. He resides in Meredith and Concord.

Posted -- March 31, 2010

Column Published, Laconia Daily Sun, Thursday, April 8, 2010.

Peter Pickney: Miss Parker, My Quiet Mentor


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