Ernest J. Gaines's 'Lesson' prompts teens to grapple with stark realities

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What lessons could a city learn from reading the same book at the same time? What lessons could be learned in a city trying to heal from senseless violence -- from a drive-by shooting in Southeast Washington that killed three teenagers last month? Could a city heal from a book that tells a complicated story about injustice, racism and the need for second chances?

What would happen if throughout the city, everyone were engaged in the same lesson? Like back in English class, when a professor asked you to think deeper, to look for symbolism in the story, for irony, character development, layers of complication?

Officials at the D.C. Humanities Council and the D.C. Public Library system are participating in the "Big Read," a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to "revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture," are hoping that everyone in the city can learn from reading the same book.

This year, the Humanities Council selected "A Lesson Before Dying," by Ernest J. Gaines, a novel about a black teenager living in segregated Louisiana, who is sentenced to death in the 1940s for murders he did not commit.

The council and the library system distributed more than 2,500 copies of the book to programs for the homeless, juvenile correctional facilities and to schools, where questions raised by the story were explored. Film showings and book discussions related to the book are scheduled across the region, including book chats hosted by The Washington Post.

On Monday, students at Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington created a dramatic play based on the novel, which paints the last days of the life of the main character, Jefferson. It tells the story of the town's only black teacher, Grant, who had been asked by Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, to help Jefferson gain self-respect after suffering indignities at a trial. A racist public defender had called Jefferson "a hog" during the sham trial. The word rattled Miss Emma .

Alyrah Davis, a 16-year-old junior in an orange sweater, took the stark stage in Coolidge's auditorium to recite her lines as Miss Emma. "My baby didn't do anything to anybody," she intoned. Her class had just finished reading the book and Alyrah wrote her part last week. "My baby is not a hog. He's a man. . . . That teacher and that reverend, they are going to turn him into a man by the time he gets to that chair."

Joy Ford Austin, executive director of the Humanities Council, says the book is a timely read. The organization wanted more young people, ages 13 to 24, to participate in the Big Read because the NEA has identified that age group as the least likely to sit down and read a book for enjoyment.

Throughout the city, the book prompted discussions on the criminal justice system, fairness, life and death, pain and the burden of stereotypes.

" 'How do I live, knowing I will die?' " Austin says, referring to the issue Jefferson wrestles with in the novel. "A question the teacher in this book has to confront is: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Those are two old questions, as old as time. Young people get that. They relate to those two questions."

'Against the grain'

Last week inside Cardozo High School in Northwest Washington, a strong morning light streamed in the grand windows of the magnificent school built during segregation. Schools then were built to glorify education. Arched ceilings, ornate tile, wide walls, classrooms the size of small condos. Marble floors. The school stands on one of the highest hills in Washington, with sweeping vistas.

An advanced-placement literature class of 16 young black men and one student from Vietnam was analyzing themes from "A Lesson Before Dying."

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