The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Book 3, Chapters 4-6 Summary

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Jane discusses Huey P. Long, who was once the governor of Louisiana. Long promoted the rights of poor people and wanted to support them by taxing the rich. His ideas were popular with the poor but obviously not with the rich. He was assassinated. Jane makes references to Long in her story, saying that she believes it was the rich white folks who were responsible for Long’s death. She thinks Long was determined to help poor folks, white and black, by providing them the means of a good education.

She then discusses various teachers during that time who come to her community, determined to teach basic skills to the people who live there. One of the teachers is Miss Lilly. Jane offers part of her quarters for Miss Lilly to live in while she teaches at the plantation school. At first, the adults feel curious about this new teacher, so they stand outside the school and look in through the windows while the children go to school.

But Miss Lilly’s manners and beliefs begin to clash with the reality of the people who live there. She makes demands on the children that they cannot keep. For instance, Miss Lilly wants the girls to come to class with ribbons in their hair and well-ironed dresses on. The boys are to wear ties and shine their shoes. But the children are too poor to buy ribbons or ties. Miss Lilly does not seem to understand this. So the children begin to make excuses for not showing up for school. They have colds or headaches or some other physical ailment that prevents them from attending. Miss Lilly will go looking for the absent students, leaving the children who are sitting obediently in the classroom on their own with no lessons.

Later Miss Lilly demands that the children brush their teeth each morning. When she finds out that they cannot afford brushes, she goes to the local store to order brushes for them. The store owner refuses. He said the white people will punish him. Miss Lilly’s popularity continues in steady decline, and at the end of her first year, she leaves, never to be seen again.

A male teacher, Joe Hardy, replaces Miss Lilly the next year. Joe has a different problem with the students: Joe likes the young girls a little too much. He often keeps them after school to help him grade papers. When the parents have enough of Joe and his lecherous ways, one of the fathers ties Joe to a tree and whips him. When Joe complains to the local sheriff, the officer will have nothing to do with him. He has heard about Joe’s reputation with the young girls and tells him the best thing for him to do is to leave town.

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