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Town gets together to read
By Bob Reha
Minnesota Public Radio
December 31, 2001
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Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird is considered a timeless classic by some. Its message of inclusion and tolerance has touched countless readers. Now teachers and students at the Fergus Falls Middle School are finding the book is not only great reading but a tool for bringing the community together. They got some unexpected support.

Ben Froslee and Joey Johnson
Ben Froslee, left, and Joey Johnson are students at Fergus Falls Middle School. They're reading To Kill a Mockingbird along with the rest of the school, as part of the Fergus Falls Reads program. The school adopted the idea after Johnson read about a similar program in Chicago.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)

Peggy Underwood is a special education teacher at the Fergus Falls Middle school. She's taught for 20 years. Her students will tell you reading isn't their favorite thing to do. One day this fall as the class was reading a newspaper together, student Joey Johnson found an article that may just have changed that.

It was about the "One Chicago, One Book" program. City officials there were trying to build community relations by encouraging everyone to read the same book at the same time. The first title was To Kill A Mockingbird. The idea appealed to Joey.

"I just seen that they were reading a book together and I wanted to do it here. It'd be cool to have everybody read the same book at the same time," Johnson says.

The rest of Underwood's class thought it was cool, too. They decided to get other classes and the community involved. They've planned meetings with book clubs, community discussions about the novel and a showing of the film starring Gregory Peck. The class even wrote author Harper Lee, inviting her to the festivities.

If there is one thing other than her book for which Harper Lee is famous, it's how she's kept to herself in recent years. That's why a phone message from her caused a lot of excitement.

Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee surprised Peggy Underwood's reading class when she called the school regarding the Fergus Falls Reads program. Lee, who leads a very private life, declined their invitation to visit, but thanked them for their interest in her book. Listen to her phone message.

"Hi, this is Harper Lee speaking. I'm calling Mrs. Underwood's reading class. I've tried for two days and I can't seem to get anybody. I was calling in response to a very kind letter," Lee's message began.

"I was given an invitation to be with you, but of course my age and my infirmity forbid me from traveling too much. But thank you so very much all of you... bye bye."

"And when it was over, I ran down the hall to the library where my brother was," Underwood says, "and I said, 'Harper Lee just called!' And he went 'No way!'"

Teacher Peggy Underwood says at first, the students suspected it was a practical joke. They decided since no one knew they sent the letter, the message must be genuine.

Underwood says the project has helped her students become more self-confident. Reading has become something that's fun. But there's a bigger lesson that isn't being lost on the kids.

"That how prejudice is wrong," says eighth grader Ben Froslee. He hopes adults in the community will read the book, too. He says everyone needs to be reminded of its message.

Fergus Falls Reads
The entire community of Fergus Falls has adopted the Fergus Falls Reads program, and many city residents are reading To Kill a Mockingbird. A variety of activities, such as book discussions and a showing of the film, are planned as well.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)

"Just that people shouldn't be prejudiced against other people - like if they don't know them they shouldn't be against them," says Froslee.

Organizers are promoting the project with a series of essays in the local newspaper. Peggy Underwood's brother, Roy Anderson, is the middle school's media specialist. He's distributed buttons asking "What page are you on?"

Anderson says it's encouraging that students understand the meaning of Lee's work, especially as the region's population becomes more diverse.

"I think this book speaks to the fact that everyone deserves to be respected," Anderson says. "You start at a level where everyone is respected and then you build from there. That is also important for our community, and of course all the country, but I think western Minnesota and North Dakota as well."

Organizers are hopeful support of the project will continue to grow, and the Fergus Falls Reads program will become a yearly event.

More Information
  • To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee
  • Fergus Falls Chamber of Commerce