'Spirit of reading came alive'

The Big Read inspires all-school initiative at academy

The Big Read inspires all-school initiative at academy

October 16, 2007|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN - It was a request that Mary Fortson was unsure about. Even after she committed to being photographed in costume as Calpurnia, the housekeeper of attorney Atticus Finch and his children in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Fortson had second thoughts about her involvement.

The photo shoot project was a partnership between students in Digital Communication and Cosmetology at Washington County Technical High School for The Big Read, a national reading initiative sponsored locally by the Community Foundation of Washington County.

Cosmetology instructor Marie Bikle chose local residents to portray the main characters of the book and searched for 1930s-era costumes. Senior cosmetology students did the hair and makeup for the models.

John Jones' digital communication students planned the shots to showcase each character, and photographed them one at a time.

Fortson's hair was styled with finger waves, and her clothing consisted of a house dress and apron. She held a Bible because Calpurnia had a deep faith.


Despite her hesitation, Fortson, a high school English teacher at Antietam Academy, followed through with her commitment. She said her involvement sparked a change in the students at her school, which provides an alternative learning environment for students who have discipline and attendance problems at their home schools.

Fortson, 50, said after she was asked to participate, she and the other English teacher at Antietam Academy decided to have their students read "To Kill a Mockingbird." Before long, the faculty at the school agreed to have all the students read the book - the first time the school had participated in an all-school reading initiative.

"It was kind of interesting how the spirit of the book took over with us. The spirit of reading came alive because of this project," Fortson said.

Fortson said as everyone read the book, a connection developed between the students and faculty.

"There have been different reactions. Some are more aware of the time period. Some became angry. Some were saddened because things hadn't changed that much," Fortson said.

As she reread the book, she realized she and Calpurnia are more similar than different. Fortson said she strives to make a difference in the lives of her students, in much the same way Calpurnia made a difference in the lives of her charges, Scout and Jem Finch, and their friend, Dill Harris.

Fortson, whose hometown is Mount Union, Pa., moved to Hagerstown 10 years ago. She has three children and is raising her 7-year-old grandson.

"I'm a better person when I read. I need to read," Fortson said.

The Big Read finale

The character photographs will be displayed Sunday at The Big Read finale at Valley Mall. All artwork, performing art pieces, essays, photos and scenes created for The Big Read will be displayed in Center Court.

For more information about The Big Read and a schedule of local events, go to

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