Atticus Finch, a main character from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has long been recognized by lawyers as one of history’s greats despite the fact he was a fictional character.
Finch recently had a dramatic impact on another group of people — freshman advanced English students at Seymour High School.
Students in Laura Cottrill’s class traveled to Jackson Circuit Court in Brownstown to learn about the court system and to reenact the climactic courtroom scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The chance to perform the scene in an actual courtroom came about because of a previous interaction between Cottrill and Jackson County Prosecutor AmyMarie Travis.
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Cottrill said she contacted Travis two years ago when they were studying the play “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose, a piece set within the confines of a jury selection and deliberation.
The students were given a chance to see the jury room at the courthouse, talk to Travis about the selection process and act out some of the play.
Cottrill contacted Travis afterwards about whether they would be able to do the same with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which Travis made happen that spring.
The following year, Cottrill tried to make the same arrangements, but after much discussion, the court was too busy to accommodate them the second year. They did, however, manage to arrange time this year for the reenactment.
“It was a last-minute thing. They notified us the week before that we could do it and that Judge (Richard W.) Poynter even had time to participate, so we rearranged the students school schedule to fit,” Cottrill said.
The students were seated in the courtroom, and Travis spoke to them about the process of a trial, how jurors are selected and highlighted some parts of the judicial process, which is different from the scene created by Lee.
After that, Poynter entered.
He spoke with the students about the court process and jury selection, and then the students began reading the parts assigned to them to act out the scene.
“Harper Lee’s messages are timeless,” Cottrill said. “Standing in someone’s shoes to better understand them, equality, being treated as you wanted to be treated, these moral compass points haven’t shifted.”
Seymour freshman Harrison Cottrill was one of the students who played Finch during the mock trial.
“Stepping into Atticus’ character wasn’t that hard. He was a very progressive thinking mindset,” Harrison said of the fictional character who defended African-American character Tom Robinson from rape charges in an Alabama courtroom in 1936.
Laura Cottrill said she felt the standards set by Finch are ones that many people aspire to, that in the eyes of the judicial system, all men are equal.
“It should make them proud that they get to stand in the same place as Atticus, to stand at the level ground he saw, where all people are equal,” she said.
Despite a lack of evidence and even blatant contradictions about eyewitness accounts, Robinson is found guilty by the jury in the story.
Several of the students were required to play minority parts as part of the experience. These students were given tags denoting them from other students, and other students were reminded that they were in a highly segregated environment during the 1930s and were told to treat the “minority” individuals differently.
Freshman Audri McKinney was one of the students asked to play a minority part.
“We’re treated like a label, and the scenes put us in a place like we were lower than the other individuals,” she said. “At the end of the day, though, we got to take the labels off. I just wish I could show them how much things are different today.”
Laura Cottrill said she hoped the students would get that kind of experience.
“Putting them in these situations, where literature comes alive, gives them layers of investment, making it more personal and solidifies these lessons for them,” she said.
When everything is said and done, she said she believes the students in her class have internalized many of these lessons in a way that gives her hope.
“My students amaze me every day,” she said. “Their maturity, their depth of compassion is very tuned into equality and social justice issues. When I look at these students, I believe our future is in good hands.”