“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”
With these lines, readers learn that the narrator, Grant Wiggins, works as an elementary school teacher. His aunt, Tante Lou, and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, will soon suggest that he visit, befriend, and teach Jefferson while Jefferson awaits his death by electrocution. Here, Grant’s words reveal his bitter cynicism about his profession and his belief that Jefferson’s actions and their consequences are somehow inevitable in this racist community and time.
I wanted to scream at my aunt; I was screaming inside. I had told her many, many times 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.
Grant reveals his true feelings about his work and his community. He has no faith in anything and does not believe he can teach anybody anything. He doesn't believe that things will ever change. He also knows that his aunt will not take “no” for an answer regarding his visiting and teaching Jefferson. His love and respect for his aunt doom him to reluctantly develop a relationship with Jefferson.
I brought the Westcott down into his palm. “You figure things out with your brains, not with your fingers,” I told him. “Yes, sire, Mr. Wiggins.”
As revealed in this exchange, Grant can be a harsh teacher. He shames his students, makes them cry, and punishes them by hitting them with a ruler. He tells them that he does these things to make them into responsible, educated people. He favors rigid discipline over compassionate education. He hates his job and takes his frustration out on his unfortunate students.
Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle?
As Grant watches his students cut and stack firewood, he gives voice to his insecurities and fears as a teacher and a man. He told the superintendent that things change slowly, but here, he wonders if they really change at all. His students seem to be caught in an endless cycle of poverty, racism, and ignorance that he wonders if anyone can ever break.
He wants me to feel guilty, just as he wants her to feel guilty. Well, I’m not feeling guilty, Tante Lou. I didn’t put him there. I do everything I know how to do to keep people like him from going there.
Grant resists returning to visit Jefferson. He feels like he’s getting nowhere with Jefferson, but his aunt insists that he continue to try. Here, Grant reveals that he resents the fact that Jefferson tries to make him feel bad, and even more, he resents the pain that Jefferson is causing Miss Emma. This principle of caring for the feelings of others functions as the only kind of religion Grant believes in.
He wants something of his own before he dies. He wants a gallon of ice cream for his last supper—did he tell you that? . . . He has only a month to live. And all I’m trying to do is make it as comfortable as I can for him.
Grant finds himself having to defend his decision to buy Jefferson a radio. He knows bringing the radio was the right choice because Jefferson appreciated the gift. He plays the radio all day, and the music distracts and comforts him. The radio has opened a door of communication and understanding between Grant and Jefferson, and the gift of music has softened Jefferson’s outlook on the world. Grant is making progress, and the radio has helped.
You have the chance of being bigger than anyone who has ever lived on that plantation or come from this little town. You can do it if you try.
During a visit to the prison with Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose, Grant speaks to Jefferson in private, encouraging him to show everyone that he is a man, to stand up for himself and be proud, even under his circumstances. Grant gives quite a long speech, and Jefferson is moved to tears by his words. The articulation of this lesson before dying dwells at the center of the novel.
“I need you honey,” I told her. “I need to you stand with me. He’s got only a few more weeks. I need you now more than ever.”
Grant’s love for Vivian holds him together in the weeks before Jefferson’s execution, especially in this scene where he has been beaten nearly to death by some men in the bar. Vivian is losing her patience with Grant, but she rescues him and brings him to her house. She feels angry with him for fighting, but she nurses his wounds and offers to let him stay overnight. This scene and Grant’s words reveal Grant’s emotional and physical dependence upon Vivian at this time in his life. He truly feels he’d die without her.
I think it’s God that makes people care for people, Jefferson. I think it’s God makes children play and people sing. I believe it’s God that brings loved ones together. I believe it’s God that makes trees bud and food grow out of the earth.
In one of their last conversations, Jefferson asks Grant if he believes in God, and Grant answers him. All along, Grant has been trying to help Jefferson care about his godmother, Miss Emma, and her desires. For Grant, God is love, compassion, and empathy, not kneeling and baptism and preaching the Bible. At this moment, Jefferson is experiencing an epiphany, but not the kind that Reverend Ambrose wants. Jefferson’s epiphany encompasses pride, responsibility, acceptance, and strength.
Do you believe, Jefferson? Have I done anything to make you not believe? If I have, please forgive me for being a fool. For at this moment, what else is there?
The lesson referred to in the novel’s title works both ways by the novel’s conclusion. Grant has taught Jefferson how to read, write, and care for another’s feelings. Yet Jefferson has taught Grant about dignity and self-worth, about the potential for a human to change, and what salvation really means. Grant claims that Jefferson has become a braver man than he. Grant says he would not have been able to stand and face the execution as a prisoner. He was not even able to attend as a witness.