Study Guide

A Lesson Before Dying Education

By Ernest J. Gaines

Education

Chapter 3

"I want the teacher visit my boy. I want the teacher make him know he's not a hog, he's a man." (3.36)

Miss Emma gives a lot of credit to teachers. Even though in his six years at school Jefferson didn't learn enough from Grant to make him into a man, she thinks that he must have the power to do it in a short amount of time. Hopefully he's got super powers.

Chapter 5
Grant Wiggins

"Exactly what I'm trying to do here with you now: to make you responsible young men and young ladies. But you, you prefer to play with bugs. You refuse to study your arithmetic, and you prefer writing slanted sentences instead of straight ones. Does that make any sense?" (5.47)

Grant is looking at his students and fearing for their futures, because he knows how likely it is for kids in their situation to end up just like Jefferson. The only problem is, he has no idea how to help them break the cycle and just ends up lecturing them.

I was supposed to teach six months out of the year, but actually I taught only five and a half months, from late October to the middle of April, when the children were not needed in the field. (5.4)

This shortening of the school year may sound cool to you, but if you think about the fact that it is extreme poverty that drives families to take their kids out of school and make them work, you might count your blessings for those weeks of school in September, October, May and (ugh, the worst) June.

Chapter 7

Finally, when he felt that he had inspected enough mouths and hands, he gave the school a ten-minute lecture on nutrition. Beans were good, he said. [. . .] And exercise was good. In other words, hard work was good for the young body. Picking cotton, gathering potatoes, pulling onions, working in the garden—all of that was good exercise for a growing boy or girl. (7.63)

Dr. Joseph, the school superintendent, seems to worry more about whether the students are strong and healthy than whether they are learning anything at school. That shows that the expectation for black students was that they would go work in the fields, not become educated, professional members of society.

Chapter 8

"You were supposed to say, 'You were looking out the window, Mr. Wiggins,' not 'You was looking out the window, Mr. Wiggins.' Get back in that corner and face the wall and stay there." (8.10)

We like Mr. Wiggins well enough, but we've gotta say that his teaching methods are a little on the draconian side. He seems to have just given up; instead of teaching his students or explaining and giving them the chance to practice their new skills, he sticks them in the corner where they're surely not going to improve.

They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything? (8.31)

Now we're really getting to the root of Grant's frustrations. He has been standing before the groups of students year after year, trying to drill something into their heads, but he doesn't see any effect on how they behave and what they become. No wonder he's such a grouch.

"You'll see that it'll take more than five and a half months to wipe away—peel—scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years." (8.36)

Professor Antoine makes an interesting point. The problem isn't that slaves were not being educated for three hundred years. The problem is that they were being educated: they were being educated to think and act like slaves. That is why it's hard to change society.

Chapter 19

Next year it would be the same, and the year after that, the same again. Vivian said things were changing. But where were they changing? (19.71)

Grant has truly lost all hope as he sees the years passing by him, the same Christmas pageant being performed, and the same problems in his community. However, we've got the feeling that the change that Vivian was talking about wasn't necessarily in the students; it was in Grant.

Chapter 24
Grant Wiggins

"I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don't like it; I hate it." (24.38)

This is a huge insight into one of the reasons that Grant's students don't care to learn their lessons or go on to get further education. There's no point. If there is no motivation to become a doctor or lawyer (or underwater basket weaver) or whatever a student wants to become (unless they happen to want to be a teacher), they have no motivation for learning.

Chapter 31

"You're one great teacher, Grant Wiggins," he said.

"I'm not great. I'm not even a teacher."

"Why do you say that?"

"You have to believe to be a teacher," I said, looking at the rows of new cane. (31.57-60)

Poor Grant doesn't believe in himself or what he's doing with his students. However, people around him do. They see the influence he has on the people around him and consider him to be great.