Toni Cade Bambara combines a socio-economic theme with a group of raucous youngsters under the tutelage of an educator very far removed from their Harlem sensibilities in her short story “The Lesson,” published in 1972. Her upbringing in that area of New York City is brought to life through Sylvia, the narrator. She is Bambara’s vehicle through the character’s diction which envelops the reader into the young girl’s cynical yet insecure point of view. This in turn allows the lesson Mrs. Moore imparts on her student resonate stronger despite her stubborn refusals to learn. The imagery and description of scenes and characters gives the story a firm base that illuminates Bambara’s issues with income inequality and education in low-income areas. She does this in such a way that engages the reader, leaving something for them to learn as well.
The introduction of the book concentrates on Miss Moore, who serves as an antagonist of sorts for the story. She is despised by Sylvia, which is indicated well in her description of Mrs. Moore’s “nappy hair and proper speech with no makeup” (Bambara, 1972). Her college education is seen with skeptical eyes from the youngsters. The adults also show criticism via her constant appearance of looking “like she was going to church though she never did”(Bambara, 1972). Despite their criticism, they still send their youngsters to her as she is a representative of an education their working class parents cannot afford.
Miss Moore is Bambara’s first representation of the difficulties of being African-American and educated, which is still endemic to the culture to this day. What makes Moore interesting as an opponent to the narrator is that Bambara was an educator. She graduated with a B.A. in theater and literature from Queens College and a M.A. in American studies at City College, New York (Schirack, 2001). Bambara puts both her story-telling and educating abilities to create a character that puts together a creative Socratic-style teaching session through Moore’s decision on a field trip to F.A.O. Schwarz as the classroom.
The only obstacle to Moore’s underlying lesson is her students, with Sylvia as the reader’s primary instance of that. Sylvia talks in a way that does not hide her grit, shrewdness, and skepticism even under the staggered sentences and slang. She snaps back at Miss Moore as a way of showing her indifference to the lesson or to voice her frustration. Bambara uses Sylvia’s frustration as her own way to criticize the economic disparities that exist between races. Sylvia’s examination of the price tag of a very expensive sailboat brings out her indignation at first, then a rage that makes want to “punch somebody in the mouth” (Bambara, 1972). That part of Sylvia gives the story another layer of legitimacy that, with the coveting of high-end devices, still applies to the present day.
Sylvia’s speech is also a great example of utilizing vernacular as the foundation of the story. Her expository description of Moore, the neighborhood, and keen perception of the people that reside in it is masterfully written by Bambara. Sylvia talks about running away from the lesson to “terrorize the West Indian kids and take their hair ribbons and their money”, which creates in the mind of the reader the image of a tough young girl in Harlem (Bambara, 1972). That is a trademark of Bambara’s work, as it fits the strong feminist leanings in her short stories, as well as in her editing (Schirack, 2001).
A near-perfect example of Sylvia’s way of description is in the opening sentence of the following paragraph: “So this one day Miss Moore rounds us all up at the mailbox and it’s purdee hot and she’s knockin herself about arithmetic” (Bambara, 1972). It reads smoothly and describes the scene in way that gets the reader near that mailbox by evoking the displeasure of a hot day in formal attire. It also highlights one of the two challenges of the story, which is how the culture the youngsters are growing up in is hindering their education.
Miss Moore’s students cover a wide swath of characters necessary to any classroom. Again, she uses Sylvia’s nicknames for them like Q.T., Junebug, and Fat Butt to better describe the neighborhood. As a group they are rambunctious, “hanging out the window and hollering at everybody” until they reach F.A.O. Schwarz where the reality of their place in life sets in (Bambara, 1972). For example, when the group finds the four hundred eighty-dollar paperweight, the reader gets a larger examination of the youngsters’ plight. Some of them do not have a desk to put a paperweight. What is more telling is how Big Butt and Flyboy reveal they do not receive homework or have a home, respectively. It is yet another poignant way of how Bambara portrays economic issues, by putting the youngsters and their ignorance under a melancholy light for the reader to see.
Sylvia throughout the story also has her moments of vulnerability that punctuate her otherwise streetwise personality. The store creates a growing sense of shame within her that is inexplicable and confuses her emotions. Being inside a powerful bastion of white affluence that has the prestige of a F.A.O. Schwarz evokes the same sense of guilt she felt when she and Sugar crashed into a Catholic Church. Bambara’s connection of the high-end toy store to a church is a clever one, as it shows the almost-religious power of money in the eyes of the have-nots.
It is at this point that Bambara shows that it is money that is the true antagonist of the story. For all of Miss Moore’s lecturing and stifling of a summer day better spent in a pool, it is in Sylvia’s realization what the price a toy birthday clown can equate to in her own life that she understands the lesson. Bambara reinforces on the reader the idea that “poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” as much as Miss Moore is imparting that on the youngsters in the story (Bambara, 1972). It works to an extent, as Sugar does understand there is a problem with how money is divided in the country. However, she is stifled by Sylvia who does not want to give Miss Moore the satisfaction of showing any sign of learning.
Sylvia does walk away from the trip to the store with more than one valuable thing. Bambara concentrates on the tangible one first, the four dollars for taxi fare, as a way of showing Sylvia’s street-smarts mentality beating out Miss Moore’s book smarts. But when Sylvia stops Sugar from articulating her awareness and Miss Moore shows disappointment in the action, she has another moment of weakness where she feels something in her chest. That is the beginning of her second gain, which is the lesson itself. Bambara, in the last few passages, clearly shows that Sylvia will go on and “think this day through”, thereby cementing the power of the trip to F.A.O. Schwarz (Bambara, 1972).
The power of “The Lesson” is in Bambara’s execution. It is one way to describe a normal field day that teaches economics, but when narrated by a character at odds with the teaching it engages the reader more, possibly giving one a “headache for thinkin so hard” just as it had for Sylvia (Bambara, 1972). Bambara herself stated the strengths of the short story medium, in that it “makes a modest appeal for attention, slips up on your blind side and wrassles you to the mat before you know what's grabbed you" (Sternburg, 1980). The reader is wrapped in the heat of the city and in the thoughts of youngsters mesmerized by the awe of expensive toys only to walk away, like the narrator, with the intent of taking what they learned from the story and make something from it.
Bambara, T. C. (1972). "The Lesson" (10th ed., pp. 413-419). The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers: Longman.
Schirack, M. (2001). Toni Cade Bambara. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/bambaraToni.php
Sternburg, J. (1980). The Writer on Her Work. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.