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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE - A Lesson Before Dying
The next day at the schoolhouse Grant found himself tuning out the children’s lessons. The routine was so continuous that even before the day began he knew which bible verses the kids would read, who would wear what, who would have their homework done, and who would succeed and who would fail regardless of what he did as teacher. He taught school in the church, from October to the middle of April when the children weren’t needed in the fields. As he walked around, Grant felt bad about offending his aunt, who barely spoke to him this morning. Every little thing irritated him and he took out his frustrations on the students, striking one with a ruler and yelling at another. Eventually, he walks outside in disgust and looks at the weather beaten tin-roofed houses across the row. He knew each of the families in those houses, he knew all about their sad broken lives.
After re-entering the school,
he came up silently behind a boy who was playing with a bug and whacked the boy’s
head with his ruler. He then proceeded to lecture the kids about what was happening
to Jefferson in Bayonne, how the state was going to execute him and how Jefferson’s
Godmother wanted Grant to teach him how to be a man before he died. One girl,
a cousin of Jefferson’s, began to cry. Grant simply told her to stop crying or
leave the room. Later that afternoon, a messenger arrived at the school. Henri
Pichot sent his black yardman, Farrel Jarreau, to tell Grant to come by the house
at five this evening but did not say why.
Grant expresses his fatalist leanings while walking around the schoolroom. He sees himself making very little difference in his student’s lives, believing instead that the paths of their lives have already been determined by the household economics of their families. This belief in fate governs his life as well. No matter how hard he struggles, outside forces will always dictate his existence.
Grant arrives at the Pichot’s back door at ten minutes to five and Inez, the black housemaid, lets him in. She informs him that the white men in the other room are taking bets on whether or not Grant can get Jefferson ready for his execution. Although he had not eaten all day, Grant refused the dinner Inez offered him. He would endure the humiliation of waiting for the Sheriff in the kitchen because of his Aunt and Miss Emma, but he would not eat at his kitchen table. At five-thirty Grant heard guests arriving at the house, and at six o’clock Mrs. Guidry, the Sheriff’s wife, came into the kitchen. She mentioned how sorry she was for Miss Emma. When she leaves, Grant continues to stand in the kitchen. By six-thirty Inez reports that Sheriff Guidry asked if Grant was still here, and that he’s against letting Grant visit Jefferson in prison.
By seven-thirty Sheriff Guidry came into the kitchen followed by Henri Pinchot and two other men who’d come in to watch the Sheriff make sport of Grant. Grant tried to decide whether he should act like the nigger they expected or the teacher he was. He decided to wait and see how things developed. As the Sheriff asked why he wanted to meet, Grant realized that hey had already discussed the matter in the other room and that the Sheriff had already made up his mind regardless of how Grant answered. Still, Grant had to go through the motions of explaining why Miss Emma wanted him to visit Jefferson. The Sheriff questioned Grant about his intentions and whether or not he could make Jefferson a man, all in an effort to make him look foolish in front of the other guests. In the end, the Sheriff agreed to let Grant visit Jefferson even though he thought the whole idea was a waste of time. He promised that Grant couldn’t put anything in Jefferson’s head that wasn’t there already.
During his conversation, Grant has to walk a very fine line. He doesn’t want to deprecate himself by acting like an Uncle Tom, but he also knows that acting too intelligent could be very dangerous. He ends every sentence with ‘sir’, and only answers to direct question from the sheriff. However, he refuses to play the smiling servant. When the sheriff asks him how long he’s been waiting, instead of giving the expected answer ‘not long’ he answers honestly that he’s been there two and a half hours. In response to Guidry’s question “...which one do you think is right (my wife) or me?” Grants cleverly retorts that he makes it a policy never to get involved in family disagreements. This irritates both the sheriff and his posse, who were hoping to see Grant caught in a trap of logic.
We can add the Sheriff to the list of characters who believe one should accept the status quo, since thrashing about trying to improve the situation will only make things worse. (Of course, it’s only logical for the upper class to preach acceptance of the existing social structure.) In his mind, Jefferson is a hog and he should go to the chair as a contented hog instead of having his mind stirred up by new ideas. In this way he unknowingly plays upon Grant’s own misgivings about the prison visits. Inside, Grant doubts that he can make a difference to Jefferson, or that a person with his background can hope to rise above his circumstances and act like a man.