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PLOT SUMMARY AND NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying
Two weeks before he visited Jefferson in jail, Grant received word that the superintendent was planning on visiting their school during the week. To ensure they were not caught unaware, Grant placed a student on guard to watch for any cars entering the quarter. All that week he drilled the children on dress, hygiene, the pledge of allegiance, and other lessons. Finally on Thursday the superintendent arrived. He was a short fat man who had difficulty getting out of his car and making his way into the school. As he entered the school the entire class stood up, then sat down in unison after he had seated himself. He looked over the class, then called up a five-year old girl, checked her hands for cleanliness, and asked her to recite a bible verse. Then he called up more students from the other grades, asked them grammatical and mathematical questions, checked their hands and even looked at their teeth. The spectacle reminded Grant of a slave owner inspecting slaves at a market. After a lecture on nutrition, Dr. Joseph commended Grant on his good work with a crop of fine students. The students rose in unison, as the superintendent walked out, but instead of feeling pride Grant hated himself for drilling them so rigorously.
As the superintendent walked toward his car, Grant raised the possibility
of getting more books and supplies for the school. But Dr. Joseph dismissed his
inquiry, saying that all the schools were in the same shape, even the white ones.
What the kids needed, he said, was lessons on dental care. When Grant asked where
they would get the toothbrushes, Dr. Joseph suggested they get busy picking the
pecans from the trees to pay for them. He ignored Grantís reply that money from
the pecans goes to help the poor families, and drove away.
The substance of the superintendentís instructions to the children is to stay healthy, get plenty of exercise doing plantation work, and learn to salute the flag. In short, he sees the school as a way of preparing the students for their future jobs in gardens, farms, and factories. This is one reason Grant feels awful for his strict training regiment. He wants to make a difference in the studentís lives, but not by becoming an agent of a society that wants to entrench these black kids in sharecropping and dead end manual labor jobs.
The week after the superintendentís visit the school received its first load of firewood for the winter. Two black men led a horse-drawn wagon into the churchyard and began to unload the logs. From inside the school, Grant listened to the men joke and laugh as they threw the wood over the fence. He watched them work in their homespun clothes and straw hats. One of the men, Henry Lewis, knocked on the church door to let Grant know the wood had been unloaded, and they were leaving and axe and a saw for the older boys to chop up the logs. The afternoon he let the boys out of school early and stood by the fence as they chopped and sawed the wood into manageable pieces. He noticed the boys behaved exactly like the older men - men who were fifty years older and had never attended a day of school in their lives. He wondered if he was accomplishing anything or if it was just one big vicious circle.
Standing by the fence, he remembered his own schooldays, when he and his friends had chopped the wood during school. Many of the boys from his class had either died violent deaths, gone to prison, or died slowly on plantations or in factories. His teacher, a mulatto, had predicted that most of them would either die young or be brought down to the level of beasts. The only thing he could teach them was flight, because there was no freedom here. And when the teacher saw that Grant wanted to learn, he hated him all the more. Yet by teaching Grant, he would pass on the burden of knowledge and free himself. When he had graduated from university, Grant would come back to visit his mulatto teacher, Mr. Antoine, and talk about the school. Antoine told Grant that none of his efforts would make any difference to the students. It would be impossible for him to scrape away the ignorance that had been plastered over their brains for the past three hundred years.
Despite their common bond, teacher and pupil hated each other. But Grant felt he needed the mulatto teacher to tell him what no one else would. One day, Grant asked Mr. Antoine why he didnít run. The mulatto replied that he liked feeling superior to the rest of the black people because his skin was lighter than theirs. Grant said he didnít feel skin color made a person superior, and his teacher replied ĎJust stay here long enough...Heíll make you the nigger you were born to be.í (Page 65) If he wanted to know about life, he would have to leave this place. There was nothing here but ignorance. A few years ago Grant had visited his teacher after getting his first load of firewood and asked for advice on running the school. The mulatto told him to do the best he could...it wouldnít make any difference.
Like the white people of the town, Mathew Antoine sees everything in terms of race because it protects his place in the social order. Being half-white makes him superior to the other blacks, even if the whites think of him as just another Negro. He shares the white demeaning attitude towards blacks, believing that education will not change the character flaws that are buried down deep in the race.
Despite their mutual contempt, Grant continually visits Antoine because he sees the mulatto as a bearer of some hidden secret - how to escape the destiny of the black man in the South. Neither of the two options Antoine gives him - either run or be brought down to the level of a beast - is acceptable. Grant seeks instruction on how to live, but Antoine has no answers. The mulatto knows only hatred, resentment, bigotry, and hopelessness.