Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 16 Summary

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Grant is walking around the schoolyard and slapping his leg with a ruler when he sees a car drop off Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose in front of Miss Emma’s house. Grant goes back into the classroom, where the children are making plans for the Christmas program. Three boys have agreed to be in charge of getting the tree, and Grant asks Clarence if this year he will be able to get a little pine tree. The previous year, the boys cut down and brought in an oak tree that had lost most of its leaves. The girls washed the tree before decorating it with cotton and crepe paper; although it was not a pine tree, it turned out beautiful. Grant indirectly asks the children to think of Jefferson during the Christmas holiday, and then he dismisses them. He sits down to mark sixth grade geography tests, and Thomas, one of the students, returns to the schoolhouse to tell him that Miss Emma wants to see him on the way home.

Grant walks the short distance to Miss Emma’s house and finds Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. The room is silent, and Grant senses that their visit to the jail did not go well. Miss Emma says that she knows Grant lied when he said Jefferson liked the food. She says that during her visit she had to hit Jefferson. A few days later, Miss Eloise visits Tante Lou, and Grant overhears his aunt telling her about the visit.

Jefferson had pretended to be asleep, and there was no place for the three to sit when they entered the cell. Finally Jefferson turned around, but he seemed to look right through them—his stare was completely blank. Miss Emma told him that she brought food and clothes, and Reverend Ambrose told Jefferson that he prays for him every night. The reverend’s words caused Jefferson to look at him coldly like he was about to say something cruel. Jefferson then asked Miss Emma if she brought corn for a hog. Miss Emma slapped him and then cried.

Now at the kitchen table, Miss Emma asks her Lord what she has done to deserve this. Miss Emma asks Grant to please go back to see Jefferson because he is the teacher and Jefferson needs help. Grant gets up to leave and says that he can do nothing—Jefferson has already treated him the same way. Tante Lou tells him not to run away from this problem; nothing will change her mind. Grant leaves Miss Emma’s house and goes back home to his room.

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