The Lesson is a short story written by Tony Cade Bambara which was first published in 1972. It focuses on the group of African American kids who grow up in the outskirts of New York City. Miss Moore, an educated black woman, who just moved to their neighborhood takes this as an opportunity to give back to the community by educating underprivileged black kids.
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The story is told through the eyes of one of the kids, Sylvia. The group of children consists of four girls and four boys, however, each of them has slightly different socioeconomic opportunities. Miss Moore is an antagonist, from the narrator’s perspective, she prevents everyone to have fun. The conflict between Sylvia and Miss Moore is identified from the first pages of the story. Sylvia says, “this lade moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her” (Bambara 1). Sylvia continues by saying, “and we kinda hated her too” (Bambara 1). The main reason for the hate is explained further when she confesses, “I’m really hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (Bambara 1). The main difference between Miss Moore and the rest of the people in the short story is her education. It manifests through the way she dresses and by the way she speaks. The language of the narrator is filled with grammar, spelling, pronunciation mistakes, as well as slang, and colloquialisms.
Bambara uses the narrator’s language to accomplish a very important goal which is to demonstrate what it means to be black in the American educational system.
Miss Moore takes responsibility for educating these kids in her own hands. She decides to take them for a field trip to Fifth Avenue’s FAO Schwarz. However, before that, she asks the kids if they know what money is and how much their parents make. In this paragraph, Miss Moore makes her first political comment, she notes, “money ain’t divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums” (Bambara 2). It is peculiar to understand that Sylvia does not think she lives in a slam nor that she is poor. Nevertheless, when they get into the cab, the kids are “all fascinated with the meter ticking” (Bambara 2), which probably means they have never taken a cab before.
The change of setting in the story is important because Miss Moore tries to show the kids what it means to be rich in America. One of the most important phrases in the story is uttered by Sylvia when she arrives at Fifth Avenue, “White folks crazy” (Bambara 2). For the author, it represents a sad American reality in which race is connected with financial and educational opportunities. The climax of the story happens when the kids stand in front of the toy store and see the price tags. They are in total disbelief that someone would pay one thousand dollars for a toy or four hundred dollars for a paperweight. Later the readers learn that paper, homework, and desk are all foreign concepts to the kids.
These prices not only surprise the narrator but it “pisses her off”, moreover, when she enters the store, she feels ashamed at first, later, she gets angry. On the train back home, which is symbolical in itself, Sylvia contemplates about a clown toy that costs thirty-five dollars. She realizes what this amount means for her family: it means new bunk beds, piano bills, and rent. Nevertheless, Sylvia tries to resist these thoughts, and this forms the second conflict in the story. Sylvia does not want to accept the problem because then she will have to admit that there a problem.
Finally, despite Sylvia’s utmost efforts to reject the lesson, she says that she will “think this day through” (Bambara 6). This gives the story an optimistic ending because it means that things can change for the better for these kids. Tony Bambara in this short story demonstrates how some personal experiences and lessons can transform people in the way they feel and think.
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Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Gorilla, My Love. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1992.