As this post is publishing, two dozen or more teachers from Alabama – me among them – are checking in and gathering together for the Alabama Humanities Foundation’s SUPER Teacher workshop titled “Reflecting on Our Justice System,” which centers (obviously) on teaching justice issues. Today and tomorrow, we will visit the Equal Justice Initiative‘s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, and will also discuss Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine, and Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.
Earlier this month, I re-read that last book – Gaines’ novel – and had forgotten about the figure of Matthew Antoine, the narrator’s teacher when he was young. Matthew Antoine, as he is described, is an embittered realist whose only wish for his students is that they escape from this place where they are sure to meet violent deaths, where they will be “brought down to the level of beasts.” (If you’ve never read A Lesson Before Dying, the novel is about an African American teacher named Grant in 1940s Louisiana who is required by his aunt Lou and her best friend Miss Emma to counsel Emma’s son Jefferson, who has been convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and who sits in a six-by-ten jail cell awaiting the electric chair. Grant does not relish or even want the task.) About his teacher and his own goal to become one, Grant tells us of Matthew Antoine, “And when he saw that I wanted to learn, he hated me even more.” The teacher’s teacher only wanted to impart one lesson: get away from there, go where you’ll have a better chance to live. As the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it, all else is vanity.
In the story, Matthew Antoine dies of an unnamed illness at age forty-three. As he becomes more and more frail, Grant goes to visit him regularly and faces a constant stream of criticism from his unlikely and unwilling mentor. As the elder man is dying, Grant has told him that he too will become a teacher and asks, “Any advice?” Antoine replies, “It doesn’t matter anymore. [ . . . ] Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
Being a teacher and trying to affect issues of social justice can be disheartening, and Matthew Antoine symbolizes that. Of course, his plight in early twentieth-century rural Louisiana would have been different, and much more severe, from a modern teacher who wants to guide young people away from the pitfalls of life in the twenty-first century. Where I agree with Antoine that we can only “just do the best [we] can,” I disagree that “it won’t matter.” Matthew Antoine fails to recognize the change that he made in Grant, and we teachers shouldn’t fail to recognize our students who learn, stay, and struggle against the status quo of Deep Southern poverty, backwardness, and inequality. Rather than do what Antoine did – encourage someone like Grant to leave or give up – teachers in the Deep South need to pour our best efforts into the ones who will pick up where we leave off.
It takes fortitude and conscientious effort not to become Matthew Antoine. As one teacher in one classroom, working with a couple-dozen young people, trying to aid them in averting systemic iniquity and injustice, there can be the temptation to throw one’s hands into the air, to yield to the behemoth’s immensity, and to proclaim bitterly that it doesn’t matter. But then, why should a teacher do the best he can? It has to be one or the other: either it doesn’t matter, or we do the best we can. It can’t be both. All I know is: any person, be they teacher, student, or parent, or citizen, or voter, will act according to which they believe to be the case.