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Ernest J. Gaines's 'lesson' Prompts Teens To Grapple With Stark Realities Essay

1879 words - 8 pages


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

Ernest J. Gaines's 'Lesson' prompts teens to grapple with stark realities
By DeNeen Brown Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, May 11, 2010; C01 

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 drive­by 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 ...view middle of the document...

 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 self­respect 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 16­year­old 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 NEA­dyn/content/article/2010/05/10/AR2010051004434_pf.html 1/4


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

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 advanced­placement literature class of 16 young black men and one student from Vietnam was analyzing themes from "A Lesson Before Dying." The English teacher, Frazier O'Leary Jr., who has been teaching 33 years, said he loves this class so much, he can't wait to get up in the morning to transfer his love of literature to young men who sit before him. The students arrived at school an hour early to take part. School officially begins at 8:45. This senior class starts at 7:50 a.m. "They destroy all the stereotypes about minority males," said O'Leary, who is white. He was preparing the students for an AP exam they were about to take, an exam he expects all of them to pass, because they have been studying literature with him for two years. Although the exam likely would not focus on this book, O' Leary asked them how they might use the story to help them ace the open­ question AP exam....

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