Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 3

April 7, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

Returning to our discussion of Gaines’ Lesson, I said that, even as they prepare the final version of their Salesman papers, they would need to draw on their journaling to begin planning their essays on Gaines’ novel.  To help them begin this process, I passed out their assignment sheet, which featured the following subjects as possible focuses for their essays:

  • The effects of racism on the American justice system
  • The relationship of liberty to literacy
  • The love story of Vivian and Grant
  • Grant: the man and the teacher
  • Jefferson: His transformation from “hog” to man
  • Reverend Ambrose, Grant, and the dynamics of faith and doubt
  • The women in Gaines’ novel

I then suggested that we spend our last hour talking about approaches to one or two of these overlapping subjects, focusing particularly on chapters 20-31, the ones we had not discussed.  By common consent, we began with “Grant: the man and the teacher.”  Reminding students that we saw a new Grant emerging at the end of our last session, I asked what evidence they saw of Grant’s effective teaching.  Kadrije mentioned the radio that Grant bought for Jefferson and his defense of this purchase in a confrontation with Reverend Ambrose, who calls it a “sin box” (181).  “So how can we consider a radio a teaching device?” I asked Kadrije.  She responded by reading key quotes from Grant’s defense:  “I found a way to reach him for the first time….He wants something of his own before he dies….The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio” (182, 183).

After commending Kadrije on her insights and evidence, I asked if anyone else could uncover some effective teaching that emerges, rather ironically, from his conflict with Reverend Ambrose.  “You recall,” I said, “that Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to pray, to kneel; Grant refuses, saying that he has tried to teach him to stand.  But what kinds of teachings does Grant share with Jefferson in the meetings that follow?”  Edita answered, referring to Grant’s lesson about heroism, his teaching Jefferson to be a hero; she then read some key quotes from the lesson: “A hero does for…people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better….You could give something to Emma, to me, to those children in the quarter” (191).  “Can you tell me what Grant has to say about Mr. Farrell’s slingshots?” I asked her.  “It’s a metaphor,” Edita explained; “Farrell turns rough wood into a beautiful slingshot handle; he wants Jefferson to “decide to become something else” (193).  “And what irony does this lesson have, given Grant’s recent fight with the Reverend?”  “Grant speaks like a pastor, teaching about love,” Edita answered.  “And what does Grant tell Jefferson as they walk around the day-room, Jefferson in shackles?”  Edita answered with another quotation from Grant: “I think it’s God that makes people care for people” (223).  Naturally, I had lots of praise for Edita, too.

Delighted by these insights, I asked the class what other brilliant teaching idea Grant has just before he begins this ‘sermon’ about love.  Several answered with “the pencil and diary.”  I then asked how this teaching strategy works, and how it relates to the “liberty and literacy” subject on their assignment sheet.  “What do we learn about Jefferson from his journaling, besides the obvious fact that he had minimal literacy skills?  What does he write about?”  These questions led to an array of answers: Jefferson’s dream about the execution, his feeling that God “just work for wite folks” (227), his gratitude to his teacher, his tearful response to the children who bring him pecans and kisses and marbles, the kisses he gives to Emma at her last visit, his admission that he “been shakin an shakin but im gon stay strong” (233).  I then asked what they would call a person who admits his fears but faces them, a person who can show tenderness to children, compassion for his godmother, and gratitude to the man who made him “think im somebody” (232).  Several answered instantly: “a man.”  “Yes,” I responded, “so what does Gaines suggest here about the power of writing?  Jefferson still wears chains, he still will die, but what has he achieved?”  “Freedom,” Fidan said.  “He has escaped the ‘hog’ identity.”

Thanking the class for their thoughtful responses, I encouraged them, as they began to draft on their chosen subject, to think about blending a critical theory or theories with their analysis.   For example, I noted that the subject of Jefferson as well as the first two subjects focus on racism and the justice system and on the relationship of literacy to liberty; therefore, these subjects might invite a Marxist reading of the novel, arguing that the injustices of capitalism appear in the arrogance of the ruling class and in their oppression of the proletariat or working class.  On the other hand, I said that if they chose to write about Grant, they could take a deconstructive approach, arguing that Grant’s transformation and its effects on Jefferson and the deputy Paul undercut the Marxist critique, showing that capitalist injustices can, eventually, be overcome.  Further, I suggested that a paper on Vivian and the other women in the novel would invite a feminist reading, stressing the failed attempts to silence women, and a paper on Grant and Reverend Ambrose could take a psychoanalytic approach, tracing the conflict between the agnostic and the man of faith as a clash between a ‘son’ and a surrogate father/authority figure.

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Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines in church (Source: African American Literature Book Club)

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

February 15, 2012

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Nine years have passed since Paula Huntley published her superb memoir, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.  Narrated in journal format, Huntley’s book records her experiences in 2000-2001, just one year after NATO troops drove Serbian forces out of Kosova.   Naturally, after a decade of civil war, most Kosovarans had suffered all the horrors that go with urban warfare and displacement, and when the shooting stopped, many Kosovarans found themselves homeless and jobless, and everyone found that the educational and legal systems had suffered the same battering.  So when Paula Huntley and Ed Villmoare chose to come to Pristina, they did not come as mere observers.  Instead, they came to help, Paula by teaching English as a second language to Albanian students, Ed by working through the American Bar Association to help Kosova to rebuild its legal system.

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley, author of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

Having just re-read this inspiring book, I must applaud the way Paula and Ed came to help.  Eschewing know-it-all posturing, they couched their offer to help in compassion for those who had suffered so much and in full awareness of their own limitations.  Describing Ed’s need to “do something” in response to the wide-spread agony, Paula records her doubt that “Ed really believes he can do anything of great significance here.  He is a man of few illusions.  But he is also a man of character and compassion.  He can’t just do nothing” (29).  Similarly, three months into her teaching, Paula wonders if she has “really [done] anything to help” (129).

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

They also came to help as partners and peers with the Kosovarans, fully expecting to learn as much as they teach and to receive as much as they give.  This respectful stance, their doubts about effectiveness notwithstanding, earned Huntley and Villmoare the trust they would need to help Kosovarans build a future on a foundation of justice and learning

We can see that earned trust in the stories that Kosovarans come to share with Paula and Ed.  In working with his legal assistant Blerta, for instance, Ed hears the story of her mother’s gang-rape, a war crime that has silenced her mother permanently (179).  Similarly, in teaching stories such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Paula engages Ermina and other students in eager discussions of marriage as a relationship shared by “equal partners,” not by a jailer-husband and his prisoner-wife, too often the case, says Ermina, in Pristina (183).

By starting her book club in her Pristina home, Paula also used Ernest Hemingway’s stories to generate more discussions on the power of language to assert human dignity and to effect positive change for Kosova.  In reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, Paula and her student-guests reflected on the old man’s wisdom: “It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.”  Naturally, this quote led to discussion of the old man’s tremendous suffering as he battles the great fish, then, thanks to the sharks, his failure to bring the great fish to the dock.  But once again, the old man’s words—“a man can be destroyed but not defeated”—helped her students to realize that the old man had not been defeated, that, in Paula’s words, he had “won self-respect and the renewed respect of the villagers.  He maintained his dignity and showed courage in the face of overwhelming adversity” (167).

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

With such courage placed within reach through language, Paula’s students began to think of “overcoming” their Kosovaran  “adversity” as a realistic goal, particularly if, like the old man, they became “ready,” a condition made possible by education and a willingness to use their “new words” (204).  Without these new words to “express their fears, frustrations, angers, desires, and ambitions in ways other than violence,” Paula concludes, Kosovarans can have no hope for the future (150).  Neither can we.

Trip to Shkodra, Albania

February 8-10, 2012

On Wednesday, February 8, I boarded a minibus headed from Pristina to Tirana, Albania, where I met my dear friend Agim K., who accompanied me in another minibus to Shkodra, Albania, the site of my first Fulbright in 2003.   During the first six months of that year, I taught American lit and research strategies to sophomores at the University of Shkodra; while doing so, I lived in an upstairs apartment of Agim’s house.  He shared the lower floor with his wife Zushi and his then-18-year-old daughter Afrora.

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

I wrote a book about this experience in Shkodra.  Titled Teaching American Literature at an East European University: Explicating the Rhetoric of Liberty (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), the book focuses primarily on the academic adventure of teaching American literature—its powerful narratives of liberty and slavery, of justice and oppression—to twenty-year olds who aspired to those liberties because they knew from their own and their families’ experiences what it meant to grow up under communist oppression and an educational system that privileged lecturing and scorned writing-to-learn.

But, as the preface explains, the real inspiration for the book came from my Albanian family.  Though relatively well-off now, the Ks endured tremendous hardships, as did most Albanians, during the communist years, 1944-1989, and during the hard economic times that followed.  In narrating his family’s struggles, Agim always asked, in tearful, despairing tones, “What is possible?” after describing the horrors of labor camps and suppressed faith.  In far more hearty tones, he asked the same question after outlining his hopes for the future, always keeping despair at bay with his mantra, “step-by-step,” his courageous Faulknerian conviction that he and his family will ‘not only endure but prevail.’

Naturally, thoughts of the Agim, Zushi, and Afrora filled my head and my heart as I rode with five other passengers for six hours through Kosova’s deep snow and then through Albania’s stunning northeastern mountains pictured, however inadequately, here.  After this (roughly) 250 mile trek, we found sun and no snow in Tirana, Albania’s capital (see photo).  After Agim and I met up, we took another van to Shkodra, about 70 miles to the north, almost to Montegro.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Though I had only two days to spend with them, we used the time well to reminisce about 2003 and to brag shamelessly about our families. They couldn’t hear enough about my wife Judy; our ‘kids,’ Heather, Anna, and Matt, our son-in-law Roy, our daughter-in-law Kristen; and our grandkids, Josh, Nate, Roy, and brand-new Ellie.  Returning the favor, Agim and Zushi told me at length about Afrora’s plans to marry Erjon, a young man in Vienna; they also described their up-coming trip to the United States to work and live near their son Andi, who will soon marry Ilma, the beautiful, dark-haired young woman pictured here, next to her lovely soon-to-be sister-in-law Afrora.  The other photo features Agim and Zushi, the smug parents.  Life is good.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.