A Lesson Before Dying


Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

The day after he visits Vivian, Grant is teaching his schoolchildren, who address him as “Mister Wiggins.” They begin by pledging allegiance to the flag; afterwards, Grant sends the children to study Bible verses. In the local church, six months of the year (but really only five and a half, he admits to himself), he teaches classes for students from ages six to thirteen. In order to teach as many classes as he can, he assigns his sixth-grade students to teach first and second graders while he teaches third and fourth graders. This is the only way he can give all the children some education.
It’s clear from the beginning that Grant doesn’t think much of his own profession; what Gaines makes clear at the beginning of this chapter is that Grant hates school teaching in no small part because he doesn’t have the resources to do it properly. While white schools enjoy better funding and more attention from the school board, Grant has to make to with limited space, time, and textbooks, even assigning students to teach sections of the class. Nevertheless, he teaches because he seems to recognize that education does have some value: that’s why he divides his classes up into groups, so that everyone can learn at least a little.
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Grant remembers his night after seeing Vivian. He drove home to his house, and when he went to say goodnight to his aunt, she pretended to be asleep. The next morning, she cooked him a big breakfast, but avoided talking to him whenever possible.
For all the disrespect he shows his aunt in the previous chapters, Grant is moral enough to recognize that he’s behaved rudely. Indeed, he seems genuinely pained that Lou isn’t speaking to him that day.
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As he teaches his students, Grant finds himself getting angry with everything they do. He spanks one of his boys for calculating a multiplication problem by counting on his hands, and tells him that he must use his brains, not his fingers. He scolds the boy for using too much chalk, and tells him that he has to buy chalk for the children with his own money. He also scolds a girl for writing a sentence in a slanted direction instead of a straight line, and tells her to write six sentences in a straight line.
Grant is angry with Lou and with himself for agreeing to talk to Pichot, but he takes his anger out on other people. Yet even when he scolds the children for selfish, personal reasons, he’s still doing his job as a teacher: he teaches the boy to do math more efficiently, and teaches the girl to write more neatly. He’s making his students behave the right way, but for the wrong reasons.
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As the children work, Grant thinks that he knows all the families of his children. The boy he spanked, for instance, has parents who work on a plantation, and the girl has a cruel father and a pregnant sister. He goes to use the restroom while his student teacher, Irene Cole, maintains order. When he returns to the classroom he enters through the back door. He sees a boy playing with a bug and hits him on the head with a heavy book. Grant angrily tells his classroom that the children who play with bugs will end up like Jefferson: executed by electrocution in Bayonne. He goes on to tell the children that he’s been asked to make Jefferson a man before he dies. The girl he scolds, whose name is Estelle, begins to cry—Jefferson is her cousin, a fact that Grant knew, but doesn’t apologize for.
Once again, Grant behaves unkindly to others, but then recognizes that he was wrong to act this way. The fact that he enters the classroom through the back door alludes to the promise he made his aunt, and the way he entered Pichot’s house in the earlier chapter. It’s as if his agreeing to talk to Jefferson is humiliating him in every part of his life, even parts that seemingly have nothing to do with Jefferson. The way Grant treats Estelle is arguably the cruelest thing he’s done so far: he knowingly hurts her feelings at a time when she’s going through emotions that are too much for grown men and women to handle.
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At two o’clock, Farrell Jarreau, a messenger for Henri Pichot, arrives at Grant’s classroom and tells Grant that Pichot wants to see him in the evening. He asks Farrell if it’s about Jefferson, and Farrell replies that he doesn’t know. As Farrell leaves, Grant sees in his eyes that he knows about Jefferson, even if he hasn’t admitted it. Grant marvels that Farrell is still an errand runner who Pichot never trusts with information, and thinks that Farrell can only obtain information through his own craftiness.
Grant despises the wealthy white people like Henri Pichot who look down on Black people; indeed, he sees evidence everywhere that Black people are treated as inferior. It’s absurd, for instance, that Farrell hasn’t been entrusted with real information, even after all his years of service. It’s especially absurd from the perspective of Grant, a schoolteacher, whose job consists of helping children grow and change. People like Farrell are never given a chance to change, because their masters don’t consider them fully human. At the same time, Farrell’s ability to figure out the information anyway attests to his intelligence and ability—an intelligence and ability that Pichot completely ignores.
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