Schools are an obvious venue for the creation of a public space, a site of freedom. People are coming together, searching for something better, deciding what we value, what we hope to pass on, who we want to be. But schools are seldom constructed as sites of freedom nor places for the practice of freedom.
An urgent challenge to teachers is to see each student as a three-dimensional creature — a person much like themselves — with hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with a body and a mind and a heart and a spirit; with experience, history, a past, a pathway, a future. This knotty, complicated challenge requires patience, curiosity, wonder, awe, humility. It demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment, inquiry and investigation. It requires wide-awakeness since every judgment is contingent, every view partial, every conclusion tentative. The student is dynamic, alive, in-motion. Nothing is settled, once and for all. No view is all views and no perspective every perspective. The student grows and changes — yesterday’s need is forgotten, today’s claim is all-encompassing and brand new. This, then, is an intellectual task of serious and huge proportion.
As difficult as this challenge is, it is made tougher and more intense because teachers typically work in institutions of hierarchy and power, command and control, where the toxic habit of labeling kids by their deficits has become the common-sense and a common-place. The language of schools is too often a language of labeling, a language of reduction, a language lacking spark, dynamism, imagination, or the possibility of freedom. Whatever the labels point to—even when glimpsing a chunk of reality—are reductive and over-determined in schools. In this way they represent un-freedom—repression, coercion, entanglement. The thinking teacher needs to look beneath and beyond the labels, to reach toward freedom.
Another basic challenge to teachers is to stay wide-awake to the world, to the concentric circles of context in which we live and work. Teachers must know and care about some aspect of our shared life — our calling after all, is to shepherd and enable the callings of others. Teachers, then, invite students to become somehow more capable, more thoughtful and powerful in their choices, more engaged in a culture and a civilization. More free. How do we warrant that invitation? How do we understand this culture and civilization?
Teachers choose — they choose how to see the world, what to embrace and what to reject, whether to support or resist this or that directive. As teachers choose, the ethical emerges. James Baldwin says:
The paradox of education is precisely this–that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Teachers are the midwives of hope or the purveyors of determinism and despair. In Beloved, Toni Morrison’s searing novel of slavery, freedom, and the complexities of a mother’s love, School teacher, a frightening character with no other name, comes to Sweet Home with his efficient, scientific interest in slaves and makes life unbearable for the people there. School teacher is a disturbing, jarring character for those of us who want to think of teachers as caring and compassionate people. School teacher is cold, sadistic, brutal. He is all about control and management and maintaining the status quo. He and others like him are significant props in an entire system of dehumanization, oppression, exploitation. They show us teaching as un-freedom, teaching linked to slavery.
Toward the end of Amir Maalouf’s dazzling Samarkand, a historical novel of the life of Omar Khayam and the journey of the Rubiayat, Howard Baskerville, a British school teacher in the city of Tabriz in old Persia at the time of the first democratic revolution, explains an incident in which he was observed weeping in the marketplace: “Crying is not a recipe for anything,” he begins, “Nor is it a skill. It is simply a naked, naive and pathetic gesture”. But, he goes on, crying is nonetheless important. When the people saw him crying they figured that he “had thrown off the sovereign indifference of a foreigner”, and at that moment they could come to Baskerville “to tell me confidentially that crying serves no purpose and that Persia does not need any extra mourners and that the best I could do would be to provide the children of Tabriz with an adequate education”. “If they had not seen me crying”, Baskerville concludes, “they would never have let me tell the pupils that this Shah was rotten and that the religious chiefs of Tabriz were hardly any better “.
Both teachers show us that teaching occurs in context and that pedagogy and technique are not the well-springs of moral choice. Teaching becomes the practice of freedom when it is guided by an unshakable commitment to working with human beings to reach the full measure of their humanity, and a willingness to reach toward a future fit for all.
In a Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines creates a riveting portrait of a teacher locked in struggle with a resistant student, wrestling as well with his own doubts and fears about himself as a teacher and a person, and straining against the outrages of the segregated South. Grant Wiggins has returned with considerable ambivalence to teach in the plantation school of his childhood. He feels trapped and longs to escape with his love, another teacher named Vivian, to a place where he might breathe more freely, grow more fully, achieve something special. He had told his elderly Tante Lou, with whom he lives, “how much I hated this place and all I wanted to do was get away. I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here. But she had not heard me…”.
The story begins in a courtroom with Tante Lou and her lifelong friend, Miss Emma, sitting stoic and still near the front. Emma’s godson, Jefferson, had been an unwitting participant in a failed liquor store stick up–his two companions and the store owner are dead–and as the sole survivor he is convicted of murder. The public defender, pleading for Jefferson’s life, plays to the all-white jury with zeal:
“Gentlemen of the jury, look at this-this- this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man…I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong…
“Do you see a man sitting here?…Look at the shape of the skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand–look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?…A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited form his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa–yes, yes, that he can do–but to plan?…No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans…A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton…That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes…Mention the names of Keats, Bryon, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose…Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying ‘man’…
“What justice would there be to take this life? Justice gentlemen? Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
But it’s no good. Jefferson is sentenced to death. He has only a few weeks, perhaps a couple of months, to live. As devastating as the sentence is, it is that last plea from the public defender — that comparison of Jefferson to a hog — that cuts most deeply. “Called him a hog,” says Miss Emma. And she turns to Grant Wiggins: “I don’t want them to kill no hog”. She wants Grant to visit Jefferson, to teach him.
Wiggins resists: “‘Yes, I’m the teacher,’ I said. ‘And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach…They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store’”. More than this, Wiggins is shaken by the challenge and the context. He explains to Vivian:
“The public defender, trying to get him off, called him a dumb animal,” I told her. “He said it would be like tying a hog down into that chair and executing him — an animal that didn’t know what any of it was all about…Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know — prove to these white men — that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?”…
“What do I say to him? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?”…
“Suppose…I reached him and made him realized that he was as much a man as any other man, then what? He’s still gong to die..so what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”
Miss Emma and Tante Lou, along with their preacher, insist that Grant join them in their visits to Jefferson. It is an alliance filled with pain and tension — Grant has refused to go to church for years and, outspoken in his agnosticism, is looked upon by the elderly trio as, in turn, the devil himself and Jefferson’s best hope. The sheriff doesn’t want Grant visiting, “Because I think the only thing you can do is just aggravate him, trying to put something in his head against his will. And I’d rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog”. Grant is haunted by the memory of his own former teacher, a bitter man: “You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away — peel — scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. You’ll see”. The former mentor’s message is that nothing a teacher in these circumstances does can matter, can make a difference. Worse than that, Jefferson himself is wracked with hopelessness; he is uncooperative, resistant: “It don’t matter..Nothing don’t matter” he says, as he refuses to eat unless his food is put on the floor, like slops for a hog.
Grant begins by simply visiting Jefferson, being there, speaking sometimes, but mostly just sitting in silence. Witnessing. He brings Jefferson some small things: peanuts and pecans from his students, a small radio, a little notebook and a pencil. He encourages Jefferson to think of questions and write down his thoughts. And sometimes he accompanies Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and the reverend to the dayroom for visits. There he walks with Jefferson and talks to him. This monologue begins with Grant encouraging Jefferson to be kind to his grandmother, to eat some of the gumbo she has brought:
“I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the south today. I don’t like it; I hate it…I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.
“That is not a hero, a hero does for others…I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her, to me, to those children in the quarter…The white people out there are saying that you don’t have it–that you’re a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are…
“I want to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them, you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else–nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning those things. ‘Teach these niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers’. And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so…
“White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth–and that’s a myth. The last thing they want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth…
“..all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, [is just] a piece of drifting wood, until we — each of us, individually — decide to be something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood…but you can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be…”
He looked at me in great pain. He may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down in him…”
After Jefferson is electrocuted, a white deputy sheriff drives out to bring the news to Grant:
“He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. “He was, he was…he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked”…
“You’re one great teacher, Grant Wiggins,” he said.
“I’m not great. I’m not even a teacher.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You have to believe to be a teacher.”
“I saw the transformation, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said.
“I didn’t do it.”
“Maybe he did it himself.”
“He never could have done that.
I saw the transformation. I’m a witness to that.”
A Lesson Before Dying is a story of teaching as the practice of freedom. Every teacher appreciates the irony of teaching what we ourselves neither fully know nor understand. Each of us can remember other teachers who counseled us not to teach, and each of us recognizes the resistant student, the student who refuses to learn. And we can each uncover moments of intense self-reflection, consciousness shifts, and personal growth brought on by our attempts to teach.
Many teachers also know what it means to teach against the grain. Against oppression, opposition, and obstinacy. Against a history of evil. Against glib, common-sense assumptions. When the sheriff compares education to agitation, and the teacher to an organizer “trying to put something in his head against his will,” one is reminded of Frederick Douglass’ master exploding in anger when he discovers that his wife has taught the young Douglass to read: “It will unfit him to be a slave.” One is reminded as well of the charge “outside agitator,” hurled by the bosses at the union organizer, or by the college trustees at student radicals. When the sheriff grins at Wiggins for giving Jefferson a journal, because a hog can’t write authentic thoughts or experience real human feelings, we are in a familiar space. And when Jefferson writes in the journal, “I cry cause you been so good to me Mr. Wiggin and nobody ain’t never been that good to me an make me think I’m somebody”, we recognize something close-in about teaching, too. Both Grant and Jefferson begin as isolates, solitary men, each facing a profound and troubling crisis in his life. It is through their coming together, and through their reluctant but inevitable relationship with the aspirations of a larger community, that each is transformed. Their ability to name a barrier, to resist and then transcend it, brings them into a public space, a site of freedom.