After years of teaching novel, English teacher performs Lee’s classic

By Albie Nicol

The lights dim, the sound of cell phones shutting down echoes through the theater, and English teacher Michelle Rathe takes center stage as director Greg Holt steps off after his curtain speech and lets the show, “To Kill A Mockingbird” speak for itself.

Waterloo Community Playhouse recently put on a production of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, based on the book that Rathe teaches every year, usually in the second half of the first semester. The novel, published in 1961 and written by Harper Lee, is set in 1935 in an intolerant spot of Alabama. The book and play adaptation focus mostly on the injustice and prejudice against African Americans at the time. Since Rathe was cast as the narrator, a reflective older portrayal of Jean Louise Finch (Scout), she felt it only reasonable to bump up teaching the book this fall to her first unit.

“I think it made me focus on different things that I brought up to kids teaching it, or there were different parts of the novel that I had a better grasp on or I felt more strongly connected to than I had in the past,” Rathe said, in the middle of grading “To Kill A Mockingbird” essay outlines.

Rathe has taught the novel for many years, but she said teaching it this time around was something incredibly special since she was also revisiting the mind of a young Scout Finch through the play. “It was a really good experience because it allowed me a deeper sense of character analysis that I’ve never had before because I knew the book relatively well. There were so many pieces and emotions I could bring to it because I knew where they were coming from even if they didn’t appear in the play,” Rathe said.

While she said doing the show was a great experience, Rathe definitely had some struggles in the process of creating the show. “In the play, there are certain things that are out of order and in different sequences, so I would struggle with having lines down because of the difference between the script and the novel sequencing,” she said as she smiled, reflecting on the two weeks she spent bringing Jean Louise to life for audiences of the Cedar Valley.

“It gave me a different level of connection both in the classroom and onstage than I’ve had before. I felt it more deeply, almost like it was a part of me, instead of a book I had read so long ago and enjoyed.”

At the end of each performance, the cast bowed, sang a beautiful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the curtain closed, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder and chills as Rathe and other cast members lined up at the end of the stage to be greeted by the audience members inspired by the active retelling of one of America’s greatest stories.

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