Posts Tagged ‘Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest J. Gaines
Vintage, 1993
Source: on loan from friend


A coworker lent this book to me two weeks ago, (I think it was Monday, February 8), and for the first couple of days I devoured it (I actually broke the rules and read it while my students napped; don’t tell on me).  When naptime ended on Wednesday I had only thirty pages left which I easily could have finished that evening.


I didn’t, however.  I tucked the book in the bottom of my bag and avoided it for the rest of the week.  I knew what was coming and I just couldn’t face it.  If it wasn’t for the upcoming Big Read events, or that I needed to return the book to my coworker, that book would probably still be buried.  On Sunday, though, I finally caved in.  Thirty pages later, my eyes were red and puffy and I felt like I’d been run over by a steamroller.

A Lesson Before Dying
is a powerful book.  I don’t think I could do it justice here.  It requires more time, more thoughtful consideration than I could squeeze into this tiny space.  There is this one scene, though, that I just can’t shake from my mind.  With all the weighty issues and themes going on in this book, I don’t think this moment in the novel will come up during the various panels and discussions next month.  It’s a powerful moment though, and echoes a conversation I had recently (which is probably why I just can’t shake it).


Near the end of the book, the following conversation occurs between the main character, Grant Wiggins, and the deputy, Paul:

“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. (254)



You have to believe to be a teacher.  Throughout the story the depth of Grant’s bitterness unfolds, and here in this moment the magnitude of this bitterness is made painfully clear.  He can’t fight through it and believe in something, anything, even for the sake of his students, his community or himself.


A few weeks before I read this I said along the same lines as Grant (except I was a bit more verbose, as usual) in response to an email from a former teacher.  I wrote, “And maybe I believe this because I have to, because I couldn’t walk into my classroom every day if I didn’t believe that even in a world filled with hate and poverty and war and injustice that there is still some good worth fighting for. Because that’s what those kids need from me. They need me to believe it because otherwise every minute I spent with them loving them, trusting them, teaching them would be a lie. They deserve better than that.”


Believing in anything is a battle, and I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it would be for a young black man living in the South in the 1940s to believe.  But — and I know this is going to sound silly, since this is a work of fiction and all — for his sake, and for the sake of those around him, I hope he finds a way.


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