Sunday, March 4, 2018

Life Lessons from Ernest Gaines and A Lesson Before Dying

In anticipation of my upcoming trip to New Iberia to attend the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, I have spent the past week reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.

Mr. Gaines will be the featured guest at the festival and I want to read his works before I potentially meet him. The book was published in 1993 and for some reason I've never read it.  As much as I love Southern Literature and Southern writers, I can't fathom how this book slipped by me.  Now that I've read this book I am afraid I will be totally speechless in this man's presence.

I sobbed through the last twenty pages.  It took me three days to finish them.

In my twenty-two year career as an educator, I've known many, many kids like Jefferson.  I've know lots of Grants, too.

The setting of the novel is the Jim Crow south. Jefferson is twenty-one years old and sentenced to death for his presence at the murder of a local store keeper. The public defender calls Jefferson a mere "hog" during the trial and it becomes Grant's role to encourage Jefferson to die like a man, not like a hog.  Grant is reluctant to take this assignment on but his aunt won't take no for an answer.

Grant is a teacher; he teaches the plantation children who live in the quarter. 

As I read, I kept thinking about education. Grant went to college, got a degree, and returned to the quarter to live with his aunt and teach the children, yet he dreams of running away and starting a new life. Jefferson, on the other hand, is semi-literate and spent his life working in the fields.  Would education have saved him? Did it save Grant?

As I approached those last twenty pages all I could think of was "I teach this kid.  I have Jefferson in my classroom every year.  At least one of him, sometimes more," and by that I mean simply kids that sometimes end up in places they never intended and sometimes through no fault of their own. Life happens. What's going to happen to them?  Are we ensuring that all of our kids, every one of them, are equipped with the life skills they need to survive?  Are we doing our best by them?

In my long career in public education I can honestly say that it's not the same profession now that it used to be.  That's good in some ways and in other ways not so much.  While raising expectations for our students is great, I have real concerns about our "test and assess" culture that has come to define education and I have had kids tell me more and more often that all they feel like they are learning is how to test.  That breaks my heart.

So I try harder to engage and to make our scripted curriculum relevant and meaningful to them. Through the years, with more and more test prep added into the curriculum, it becomes harder and harder.

Kids like Jefferson sit in every classroom across the country.  Are we helping them by endlessly asking them to explain why they picked C over A and to justify that answer?  It frustrates me.  Is this a life skill they need or are we just lining the pockets of test makers?

As educators, we've been told that the shift from novels and books in ELA classes is permanent and that we will likely never return to teaching entire novels in class any longer.  (Kids can read them on their own, we are told.)  That makes me sad because that means that we lose Grant Wiggins, Atticus Finch, Huckleberry Finn, and thousands of other characters who inspire and through whom we vicariously can live and learn.  Are we doing these kids any favors by this?  I'm no longer sure.

As I read the last twenty pages of A Lesson Before Dying, through my tears I picked up my phone and sent a message to an educator friend who is equally passionate about kids and literature.  "I will never understand people who don't read," I said.  "The places they'll never go, people they'll never meet, and things they'll never feel is stunning."  Deep in my heart I believe this.

Through reading we learn empathy and compassion. That printed words on a page can touch a person so deeply they are moved to tears is amazing to me.  Equally important, words on a page can make us angry enough to fight for change, can take us to places we will perhaps never visit, can introduce us to role models, anti-heroes, innocence of spirit, purity of heart, and can teach us new ways of looking at the world.

I lived almost fifty-nine years having never met Grant Wiggins or Jefferson, but now my life is richer and forever changed because I did.

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Anonymous said...

Crusty Old TV Tech here. I wonder if any kids at Arthur Circle met Tom Swift or Bud Barclay, or Mrs Whatsit like I did, in the library after lunch. Do elementary schools even have libraries any more? Places full of books, destinations to places far away, right there, on the shelf, yours for a week or two. Or, have any met Cmdr. Swanson of the Dolphin, or Technician Andrew Harlan of Eternity in the library at Youree Drive? Before there was Han Solo and Lucas, there was Hari Seldon and Asimov. I do not understand educational bureaucracies which mandate testing, testing, testing instead of Eric Blair, either!

Anonymous said...

Crusty Old TV Tech with a last observation on the topic of education in 2018. This is not an indictment of the truly heroic efforts of some truly good and gifted teachers to the contrary. It is an observation of systemic effects based on what must be deduced as systemic design by misguided, or evil educational apparatchiks.

Are schools today approaching Orwell's nightmare scenario of 1984, or Bradbury's of Fahrenheit 451? I believe the latter. It appears Bradbury was correct, education today as designed by faceless, soulless education PhD's does not educate as understood by the Greeks, or equip to reason as by the Jesuits, but it rather seeks to indoctrinate as proposed by Marx. And I don't mean Groucho! The system must be judged by its fruits, and the ability to reason appears to have been removed from recent graduates, along with much love of the treasures of English literature.

What to do? Can we get back to the educational excellence of past years, when teachers illuminated and students (mostly) learned how to reason, plus or minus the inevitable hard case troublemaker?

Maybe the way is to starve the education beast. If the CPSB did not have its bloated staff, maybe some of the senseless bureaucracy would disappear, and teachers could teach again. I don't know the answer, but at least we should ask the question!