It was the kind of sleepy southern town that would’ve gone right on by, had you not been looking for it. Luckily, it just so happened to be exactly what I was looking for on that hot summer day in late July. I came in by way of car, down Maycomb’s main drag, the wide-rimmed tires of the old Chevy tourer kicking up dust all around me as I slowly made my way towards the end of the street. The red dust jumped and whirred in violent circles and spirals outside the glass-paned windows before finally settling back down onto the old, grey, moss-covered sidewalks. Green grass peaked through the cracks of the worn down pathways that lined the town as the residents of Maycomb’s feet shuffled lazily over them. Women patted their perspiring brows with delicate hankies while children hid in trees and ran from each other shoeless through the slightly crisped grass and bald patches of dirt and sediment rock. Men sat idle under those same trees and, in the shadows, tea and biscuits were being served by steady, patient hands that were just as tired and worn as the sidewalks of Maycomb themselves.
My place today was towards the end of the street – a simple little house on the right hand side with a few rocking chairs sprinkled across the dark wooden floor slats of the front porch. At the end of the street now, I pull my car up slowly in the drive and, as I make the turn, a mess of brown hair streaking across the white siding of the house catches my eye. I carefully put the car in park and step out onto the packed dirt drive – the heat and the gnats hitting me right in the face and all at once. Still standing next to the car, I look for the tousled brown hair again, but it’s gone. It’s not until I’ve moved down the sidewalk towards the house and am already at the poured concrete steps that I spot her again – bobbed brown hair hanging upside down, tennis shoe-covered feet flung over the top of the old, brown rocking chair. She rocks slowly back and forth a few times before suddenly locking eyes with me. “Hey!” she exclaims, both as a friendly greeting and out of genuine surprise. She rolls backwards out of her upside-down position and jumps to her feet, seemingly all in one motion. She stands before me, one thumb linked into the metal closure of her blue-jean overalls for a minute before abruptly, and tersely, adding, “Who the heck are you?”
It’s in this way that I first meet Jean Louise Finch who, for that summer at least, was just a girl of eight years old. “You can call me Scout,” she says as we make our way back down the front porch steps. “That’s what everybody calls me on account of Jean Louise isn’t a very fitting name for a girl like me.” I turn to talk to her, but she’s already ahead of me – kicking a rock towards the side of the street opposite from us. “Why is that?” I yell after her. “Why is what?” she responds. I hasten my step to match hers and we walk in-sync onto the uneven sidewalk. “Why,” I begin. “Is is not a fitting name for a girl like you?” She stops to stare at me, looking at me in that sort of why-don’t-you-already-know-this way that only children seem totally, and quite innocently, capable of. “I’m not like a real girl, even though Jem says I’m actin’ more like one all the time,” she responds, before then adding, “I’m still just different from the other girls, you know.”
I quickly learn that there are, in fact, a lot of things different about Scout. For starters, she is unusually intelligent – inquisitive and honest with a voracious appetite for the written word. “I read with Atticus,” she tells me. “Every night. N’fact – Jem says I’ve been readin’ since I was born, which I think may be the truth on account of I can’t remember ever not reading.” We’re sitting outside on the steps of the courthouse in the middle of town now – the steps are worn and sagged, both by the passage of time and the heavy weight of the burdened men that they’ve had to lift up over the years. Scout tucks her knees to her chest as she talks to me, pointing out this person and that person and just generally making it her business to fill me in on the recent going-ons in Maycomb. “This is where Atticus works most of the time, you know,” she states matter-of-factly. “Is that so?” I ask as I swat away a fly from my outstretched leg. “It is, she responds. “N’fact, he was here a whole awful lot about this time last year. Me too, actually. And Jem.” She stares out vacantly ahead of her, stick-straight strands of dark brown hair plastered across her damp forehead. “You too, huh?” I ask. “Why’s that?” After an afternoon with Scout I’ve learned it’s best to keep the questions short – not because she doesn’t understand, but because she simply finds no reason to mince words. She looks at me again in that sort-of, don’t-you-know-anything way again before answering, “The Tom Robinson case, course.”
We sit in silence for a moment, I steal a glance at her from the corner of my eye, she’s staring down at her feet, alternating the tapping of her toes from left to right and then left again. She stops tapping and turns her face towards me, the late afternoon sun cutting through the heavy trees overhead to light up one side of her young, unlined face. “Your daddy ever tell you that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view? Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it for a bit?” she asks quite seriously. I open my mouth to respond, but she interrupts before I can get a word in edgewise, “Attitcus taught Jem and me that about this time last year. I think it’s pretty important, especially here in Maycomb, but probably everywhere, too.”
It’s not until our walk back to the Finch house that I have the opportunity to bring up the Tom Robinson case again. “Hey Scout,” I start. She looks up at me as we walk side-by-side down the dusty, near-dark street. “Yeah?” she asks, cocking one dark eyebrow up inquisitively. “You know how you were asking me about if my daddy ever told me what Atticus told you and Jem about climbing inside someone else’s skin?” She skips ahead of me, “Course I do.” “Well,” I begin. “You and your daddy are right – you can’t really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view, and it isimportant everywhere, all the time – not just right now, right here in Maycomb.” She stops a few paces in front of me and turns around. “Yeah,” she replies thoughtfully. “It sounded pretty important when Atticus said it. He’s usually right about these sort of things on account of he’s sorta old and knows a lot of stuff.” She stands and waits for me to catch up. “And after all that..,” she pauses here to make a gesture back towards the courthouse before continuing, “I kinda started to notice some things. Like maybe people can be both good and bad, you know? And just cause you see somethin’ bad don’t mean that you ain’t never gonna see somethin’ good again.” She turns her back to me again on this point and, upon seeing Calpurnia on the front steps, takes off into a run. “Calpurnia gets real mad when she can’t find me for supper, you better c’mon!” she yelps, leaving me to stand in the kicked up dust in the middle of Maycomb’s sleepy main street.
It’s dark now and the supper plates have long been cleared. The Finch family walks me to my car, with Jean Louise leading the way. She’s rattling off story after story about the Radleys and the Cunninghams and even mean ole Mrs. DuBose when Atticus politely interjects, “Scout, let’s let her get on now.” Scout looks up at him, fireflies dancing in between both of their faces in the summer night sky, and exclaims, “I just want her to have enough for her story, Atticus!” Calpurnia is coming down the drive now, too, dish towel still wrung up in her hands when she adds, “I think this young lady has heard about enough for her story, Jean Louise.” I smile politely and crouch down to eye-level with Scout. “You’ve been awfully helpful,” I say to her. “I do appreciate you letting me hear all your stories, Scout.” She grins, a mischievous sort of grin that’s sole purpose seems to be to cover up the quickness of her young mind. “You’re welcome,” she says definitively. With that, I stand back up and move to get into the driver’s seat of the car. At the steering wheel once again, door already shut firmly behind me, she climbs up onto the running board and sticks her head through the cracked window. “Don’t you dare forget the most important part!” she exclaims, then stops to draw a breath. I wait for her to elaborate. Crickets and cicadas create a sort of waiting tone for her final and most important point. After some thought, she adds, “Some things are bad and some things are good and sometimes things are both – all just depends on how you look at it. Sometimes you just gotta look at it from somewhere else besides your own front porch.” And with that, she jumped off the side the car and ran off into the night to find Jem.
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