Rodney Jones: To Kill a Mockingbird

At the beginning of sixth grade
when I learned that a man,
Mr. Key, was to be my teacher,
I was dismayed. Mrs. Anders,
the other sixth grade teacher,
with whom I was in love,
was pretty and efficient
and had taught my sister
who had never made a B.
And, also, I possibly assumed,
teaching, like giving birth,
was a thing men did not do.
Plus, Mr. Key was old. He slept
a lot. He spat tobacco juice
into a tin beneath his desk.
While we, his students, conjugated
to lie and to lay, or endured
unending division, he read
The Wall Street Journal. He left
often, for he was also Principal,
and each time he left, my friend,
Pete Petty, would kneel, chuckle,
and start to gnaw on my shoulder—
I do not know why he did that—
he was not a rat, but would not
stop when asked; he persisted,
chewing deeper, leaving tooth marks
until, one day, resolved to end it,
I took the football I always carried,
and just as I brought it down
on Pete’s head, hello Mr. Key!
But no expression on his face, no
sign that soon each morning Pete
would be cranking the flag
up the pole, and in the afternoon
lowering it, walking it inside, folding
into a perfect triangle and laying
it in a cabinet; my punishment
was reading, alone in his office
an hour and a half after lunch,
reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
And he never explained why
this book, its plots and themes.
I thought of the death penalty—
I thought of it again and again—
and then Mr. Key would return
with bucket, soap, water, and rag
and make me kneel in the bathroom
and scrub graffiti from the wall
above the toilet, saying I would
need to learn these words, too,
coming from a Christian home,
a country boy, but college material.

More by this author