The Lesson is a 1972 short story by Toni Cade Bambara, an African-American writer, documentary filmmaker, social activist. The plot of The Lesson revolves around Sylvia, a young Black girl from an underprivileged New York neighborhood. As part of the children’s group, she is taken on a field trip by Miss Moore – a college-educated Black teacher who takes it upon herself to improve her community. The teacher pays for the taxi and brings the children to Fifth Avenue where she leads them to an upscale toy store. There, the visitors see plenty of expensive items that none of their families can realistically afford. The children leave the store with mixed feelings, and Sylvia submerges deep into her thoughts about what she has just been exposed to. This essay argues that the trip to the store introduces and develops the themes of wealth and inequality in The Lesson.
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The Setting of a Work
The story is set in New York City in two different locations – Harlem and Fifth Avenue. It is not clear what the year is when the events take place, though based on the prices, it could be sometime during the 1970s. The late 1960s and early 1970s were when Harlem was going through its possibly darkest era to date. Between 1969 and 1974, the neighborhood lost about 500,000 manufacturing jobs. In the years to come, violence erupted and crime rates soared. Harlem lost about a third of the population as people were looking for places with better career opportunities, school, and quality of healthcare.
What is remarkable about The Lesson is that the reader never witnesses the uncanny reality of 1970s Harlem. The narrator is a child who may not only fail to understand the environment she is living in but also consider it the norm for the lack of reference. However, when arriving in a wealthier part of town, Sylvia intuitively feels like an outsider. She is even surprised by her reaction: “I mean, damn, I have never ever been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere.” It is possible that this is the moment when the character realizes that her community and people residing on Fifth Avenue are worlds apart.
Throughout the story, Bambara uses rich figurative language that entails similes, metaphors, and epitets. At the very beginning of the story, Sylvia describes Miss Moore before she went to college: “[…] she was black as hell, cept for her feet, which were fish-white and spooky.” The simile “black as hell” is used to exaggerate the woman’s skin color. In US black communities, light-skin people were historically seen as more attractive, and this little detail about Miss Moore reveals her social status. “Fish-white” feet is an unflattering epitet that only adds to the lack of good looks. Later on, it becomes apparent that Sylvia is not just a sassy but downright mean narrator. For instance, she describes that her classmate is “wasting his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich like the pig he is.” Such figures of speech help Bambara paint Sylvia’s character as a girl who is tough beyond her young years.
The Symbolism of Physical Objects
Physical objects play a significant role in developing the main themes of The Lesson. The first thing that Sylvia notices when the children arrive at Fifth Avenue is the type of clothes that people around her are wearing. She notes that “everybody [is] dressed up in stockings” and that one lady wears a fur coat, despite the hot weather. At this moment, Sylvia does not see these objects as status symbols; the only conclusion she makes is that “white people [are] crazy.” The toy store is the place that makes Sylvia gain a deeper insight into the importance of material things. The choice of a setting is not coincidental: in fact, the store is a miniature of the world that children are only starting to explore. The children start to compare toys to their real-life counterparts. One girl asks Miss Moore: “Is how much a real boat costs? I figure a thousand get you a yacht any day.” By learning the prices, the visitors get a sobering perspective on the financial health of their families.
Undoubtedly, Miss Moore only means good when she takes children to the toy store. The teacher had a chance at receiving a college education, and now is the time to give back to the community. However, it is inevitable that she is deeply conflicted inside about the actual effectiveness of what she is doing. The children ask her plenty of questions on the field trip, and she realizes that they have significant knowledge gaps. For example, at some point, a child asks her about the microscope, and to encourage him curiously, Miss Moore suggests that he researches more at home. However, the general mood is far from upbeat, and the kids are reluctant to learn. What they need is not a lesson, but education and a better environment for their development.
The short story exposes the issues of wealth and inequality in the United States through contrasting two different worlds – Harlem and Fifth Avenue. The narrator, a young Black girl, is remarkably angry and rough around the edges. Her language is full of mean but astute observations and figures of speech. The toy store that she visits together with her teacher and other children serves as a model of the “other world” with all the luxury goods and conveniences. The physical objects allow children to realize the wealth gap between black and white people in America.
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Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature (13th Ed.). WW Norton & Company, 2015.