Grant Wiggins, the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying, is a teacher. And education plays a key thematic role in the novel. Yet the novel’s portrayal of education is not the simple “education is good” that you might hear from a politician. In fact, in the beginning of the novel, there seems to be no evidence that education, as traditionally understood, yields any long-term results whatsoever.
Grant runs a schoolhouse, filled by poor black students, out of the local church. There, he and his student teacher, Irene, instruct children in grades one through six in the three R’s: “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” Yet Grant can’t think of a single student who has used education to improve his or her life. Students that survive into adulthood have no option but to take menial jobs that aren’t any different from those filled by the old black men who drop off firewood to the school for the winter. Put bluntly, the things taught by “education” have no relevance to the kind of work society permits black people to do. Then there are people like Grant himself, who use their education to get a job teaching to the next generation of students. But the supposed “fruits of education” seem to be either nonexistent or, at best, perpetually deferred. As Grant himself puts it, he teaches the three R’s to black students because whites tell him to—the implication being that this kind of education has no empowering function whatsoever, and thus white racist society doesn’t view educating blacks as a threat.
Yet when Miss Emma and Tante Lou enlist Grant to help educate Jefferson into being a man before he’s executed, the novel grapples with what education can and should be, beyond the simple transference of facts and skills. As Grant acknowledges, the education he’s being asked to give to Jefferson can’t be anything like the kind he gives to his schoolchildren. Not only does Grant not have time to prepare Jefferson for a brighter future; Jefferson has no future. Grant is teaching Jefferson morality, not arithmetic. When Grant visits Jefferson in his cell, he tells him that there is value in acting kindly to one’s family and one’s friends, a proposition that Jefferson finds ridiculous, at least at first. Here, Gaines captures an old problem that goes back at least to Socrates: how can morality be taught? It’s significant that the major breakthrough Grant makes with Jefferson arrives when Grant is about to leave Jefferson’s cell: Jefferson stands up and asks Grant to thank Grant’s children for donating the bag of pecans Grant has just dropped off.
Out of that moment, and for the remainder of the novel, Gaines suggests a more complicated model of education than the one we get in the early chapters set at the schoolhouse. Not only can education be moral as well as practical; education need not consist of a teacher giving information to a student. A better analogy for the process of education appears in A Lesson Before Dying itself: a rough piece of wood can be carved and polished into a beautiful, smooth piece. In other words, the role of teacher—Grant or anyone else—isn’t necessarily to give information to the student, but rather to help the student unlock his innate moral knowledge, knowledge that Jefferson proves he already has when he thanks Grant for the pecans.
Grant also discovers that education is a two-way-street. Even as he teaches Jefferson, Grant learns to be a more moral person himself, sacrificing his own dignity for the betterment of Jefferson, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma. Grant’s moral transformation is only possible because he rejects the model of education whereby the all-knowing teacher passes on knowledge to the student. Thus, the novel’s “lesson before dying” refers both to what Grant teaches Jefferson about bravery and morality, and what Jefferson teaches Grant, Miss Emma, and the entire black community.
Education Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
“What can I do? It’s only a matter of weeks, a couple of months, maybe. What can I do that you haven’t done the past twenty-one years?”
“You the teacher,” she said.
“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach— reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”
Before I left for the university, my aunt sat me down at the table in our kitchen and said to me, “Me and Emma can make out all right without you coming through that back door ever again.” I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years before. I had been teaching on the place going on six years, and I had not been in Pichot’s yard, let alone gone up the back stairs or through that back door.
“Suppose I was allowed to visit him, and suppose I reached him and made him realize that he was as much a man as any other man; then what? He’s still going to die. The next day, the next week, the next month. So what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”
Besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.
It was he, Matthew Antoine, as teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.
“We got our first load of wood last week,” I told him. “Nothing changes,” he said. “I guess I’m a genuine teacher now,” I said. He nodded, and coughed. He didn’t seem to want to talk. Still, I sat there, both of us gazing into the fire. “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
“Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it,” I told my aunt. They were looking at the fire, and I stood behind them with the bag of food. “The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail. To watch them put their dirty hands on that food. To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of common criminal. Maybe today they’ll want to look into my mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip. Anything to humiliate me. All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school. Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it.”
“I don’t know when I’m going to die, Jefferson. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe today. That’s why I try to live as well as I can every day and not hurt people. Especially people who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me. I don’t want to hurt those people. I want to help those people as much as I can.”
“You can talk like that; you know you go’n walk out here in a hour. I bet you wouldn’t be talking like that if you knowed you was go’n stay in here.”
“In here or out of here, Jefferson, what does it benefit you to hurt someone who loves you, who has done so much for you?”
I was not happy. I had heard the same carols all my life, seen the same little play, with the same mistakes in grammar. The minister had offered the same prayer as always, Christmas or Sunday. The same people wore the same old clothes and sat in the same places. 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?
“Well, I guess I’ll be taking off,” I said. “Anything you want me to tell your nannan?” I had stood. Now he looked up at me. There was no hate in his face—but Lord, there was pain. I could see that he wanted to say something, but it was hard for him to do. I stood over him, waiting. “Tell—tell the chirren thank you for the pe-pecans,” he stammered. I caught myself grinning like a fool. I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him. I wanted to hug the first person I came to. I felt like someone who had just found religion. I felt like crying with joy. I really did.
“Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don’t and can’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them.” I lowered my voice again until we had passed the table. “I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. 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. I don’t even like living here. I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else. That is not a hero. A hero does for others.”
“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.
“She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ’Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”