Students. Parents. Faculty. It is an honor and a mystery that you would have me, a fictional Depression-era attorney, address you today on your journey into higher education and the modern workforce.
I am old—so old, I am wearing these huge glasses not to look cool, but because my eyes suck.
I am poor—so poor, my children Jem and Scout ate hand-me-down breakfasts.
And, most pertinently, I am uneducated. I never attended a university or completed a Sorting Hat quiz. My only classroom, boys and girls, was a courthouse. My only teacher: injustice. My only word processor: a pointy stick and some spreadin’ mud I carry in my pants pockets at all times.
But in spite of all this, I am here, and I may as well tell you what I know about living as an adult. If you’ve read Miss Harper Lee’s account of my life, you will recognize much of the advice I am about to impart. In the many decades since that volume was written, I have had time rethink and refine my old prejudices, and finally present to you now what I consider to be the five essential rules to a long and happy life. Without further grandstanding, here they are.
Rule #1. You never really understand a person until you climb into their skin and walk around in it. If you can learn this simple trick, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. For example, just yesterday I climbed into the skin of a grizzly bear and tore through a campground full of shrieking tourists. By ransacking their lunches and tossing scat about their sleeping bags, only now can I understand the lonely fate of one whose very appearance strikes fear in others; only now can I understand the sweet, sinful taste of stolen pic-a-nic baskets. I will never punch another bear again.
Try wearing someone’s skin at your grad parties tonight, and there’s no telling what you’ll learn.
Rule #2. Leave the judging to the judges. The more you try my skin-trick, the more you will see that most folks are identical in their desires to love and be loved, to sleep and be slept with, to eat and be eaten. Practice sympathy, and you will see these things are true despite a man’s age, his race, his religion, or even whether that man is a lady. Crucially, you will learn never to judge a man by the color of his skin alone—unless you are a doctor, and that man’s skin is yellow. That man has jaundice, and almost certainly isn’t getting enough opium in his diet.
There. I just saved some of you eight long years of med school.
Rule #3. Be courageous. Finding your place in the world is difficult, and that place will change as often as you do. But do not lose heart. Real courage, boys and girls, is not a man with a gun in his hand or a cool spy-knife in his boot. Real courage is the boy who calls his mother “Mommykins” right in front of his popular classmates. It is the girl who stands and delivers her book report having only read the Sparknotes. Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. Yes: It is brave to take a licking. Some of the bravest men I’ve ever known are ice cream cones.
Rule #4. As all children know, but many forget in adulthood, it is a sin…To Kill a Mockingbird [holds for applause] [there isn’t any].
A mockingbird will never eat your huckleberries without asking. A mockingbird will never bite the hand that offers it corn, or squat down and defecate in front of your innocent children like one of the more festive zoo birds. A mockingbird’s sole purpose in life is to create beauty, to sing her song for us, free of charge.
Be as the mockingbird, boys and girls. Give your beauty freely, and you will never die. Just look at Sir Sean Connery, or Sir Carrot Top. Why, just look at me—I’m 140 years old, and my mind is as sharp as a porcupine parka. If you learn nothing else from my speech, mortal children, learn this: I will never die. I, Atticus Finch, beautiful lawyer-man, will never. Ever. Die.
Finally, rule #5: If you are friends with the town sheriff, you can probably get away with murder.
I hope you’ve found the ramblings of this old lawyer helpful today, boys and girls. I wish each and every one of you the best of luck in your adult lives. Wherever they take you, be courageous, be kind, and be fair to all you meet. And remember—if any one of you harms so much as a hair on a mockingbird’s butt, I will find you. I will lick you. And I will walk around in your skin for a while.