Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 8 Summary

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A week after the superintendent’s visit, the first load of firewood for the winter is delivered to the school. Several men arrive with a large wagon; the two donkeys pulling the wagon strain to pull the weight of the load. The men joke to each other and create a ruckus. Grant warns the children that they must not become distracted and look out the window, but Grant himself looks out to see what the men are doing. When he tries to scold a boy for looking, the boy tries to win some leniency by pointing out that Grant was looking out the window, too. Grant punishes him anyway—not for looking out the window but for using poor grammar when stating his claim. It takes the men thirty minutes to unload all the firewood into the churchyard, and then one of the men, Henry Lewis, knocks on the back door of the schoolhouse. Mr. Lewis tells Grant he is leaving behind a saw and a few axes so the boys can chop the wood. Grant thanks him for dropping off the load.

Later in the afternoon, Grant stands near the fence while the older boys chop the wood. The younger boys and the girls remain inside, and they want to know why they have to stay inside studying while the older boys are outside having fun. Grant tells them that the next day they can pick up wood chips and stack all the wood while the older boys study. As the boys saw and chop, they laugh and joke with each other. Grant wonders if his teaching is having an effect on them at all.

Grant thinks back to his own time in that school when he had to chop wood along with the other boys. Many of those other boys moved to other towns, got mixed up in trouble, and died before their time. Others went nowhere and died slower. Grant remembers that his teacher at the time, Matthew Antoine, had predicted that many of the boys would die violent deaths and those who did not die would live like beasts. Mr. Antoine said that there was no other option but to run. But Tante Lou always told Grant to learn what he could from his teacher and to further his education. On visits home from university, Grant would visit Mr. Antoine at his home in Poulaya, and even then Grant could sense his former teacher’s hatred and contempt. Mr. Antoine warned him that returning to the plantation as a teacher would suck the life from him, but Grant felt like he needed his old teacher. One day, Grant took a bottle of wine to the old man’s house. While he drank, Mr. Antoine told Grant his thoughts about racial superiority. The last time Grant saw Mr. Antoine was the year he became a teacher. Grant asked for advice, and Mr. Antoine told him to do the best job he could—but that in the end his efforts would not matter.

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