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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 5 | Summary



The following day, Grant Wiggins's students, who range from age 6 to 14, pledge allegiance to the flag and recite their Bible verses. Finding them depressingly predictable, Grant tunes the recitations out.

Grant is the only teacher for the plantation children, and his classroom is in the church. He has the older students instruct the younger ones in order that everyone gets instruction daily. The children sit on pews, and Grant's desk is in front of the pulpit and altar. Behind him on the wall are three pictures: one of the minister, one of The Last Supper, and one of "Christ knocking on a door." School is held for the five and a half months each year when the children aren't working in the fields.

Grant is irritable. His aunt is avoiding him, upset he didn't eat her food the previous evening. He intimidates his students by chastising them or hitting them with his ruler when their focus or academic performance displeases him. When one boy is playing with a bug, he hits him in the head with the ruler, saying, "You think that's why I'm here, so that you can play with bugs, huh?"

Grant speaks frankly to his students about Jefferson, "someone just like you who sat right where you're sitting only a few years ago." He vividly describes death by electrocution and tells them, "The public defender called him a hog, and [his nannan] wants me to make him a man." He says that's what he's trying to do with them in class, but implies they don't take it seriously. When Jefferson's cousin Estelle begins to cry, Grant tells her to quit crying or leave. Farrell Jarreau, Henri Pichot's handyman, comes by and tells Grant that Pichot wants to see him at five o'clock that afternoon.


The plantation community's poverty is communicated by the fact that the church is made to double as a classroom and Grant is the only teacher for all the students. The crowded, understaffed, wood heated school/church contrasts with the wealth of Henri Pichot and his antebellum mansion. The fact that Grant, who lacks faith, teaches in a church is also symbolic and the three pictures behind Grant's head foreshadow future events in Jefferson's life, which is conflated in the story with the life (and death) of Christ.

To Grant, the children sitting before him are all potential Jeffersons, a fate he is trying to save them from by educating them. To shock them into awareness of this reality, he uses methods reminiscent of a slave driver, but the ruler he hits them (and himself) with symbolizes his education. Education, after all, is what made him aware of the horror they all live in as pawns of white power. Grant hoped his education would give him the tools to fight this system effectively, but he cannot: the system itself ensures he lacks basic resources for teaching effectively. His classroom represents his burden: he is trying to end the cycle of black disempowerment, but everything seems to be conspiring against his success.

The children recite Bible verses and pledge allegiance to the flag every day, a practice which is in service to white power, which benefits from having blacks internalize patriotic and religious values at an early age. These, after all, are the values that will ensure black complacency and perpetuate the status quo. The flag hangs "limp," reflecting on the nation's failure to live up to its ideals of democracy and equality. Grant knows this, and so he describes Jefferson's fate to his students in blunt terms. He wants to convey to them the matter of their education is, as black people in a white world, a matter of life and death.

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