The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara
In The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara we have the theme of appearance, class, equality, shame and education. Narrated in the first person by a young African American girl called Sylvia the reader soon realises from the beginning of the story that Bambara may be exploring the theme of appearance. Miss Moore out of all the characters in the story stands out from everyone else. Not only does she have a college education but Sylvia thinks that she is different to those who live around her. If anything some critics might suggest that Miss Moore is defined by her education due to the fact that she takes it upon herself to educate some of the children in the neighbourhood. What is also interesting about Miss Moore’s education of the children is that she is schooling them for life rather than for the classroom. Throughout the story Miss Moore tries to bestow on the children the sense of inequality that exists not only in America but between white people and black people. With black people being treated more as second class citizens than as equal peers to white people. Something that is noticeable from the living conditions of each of the characters in the story. They live in social housing provided by the government while in contrast white people are spending large sums of money in F.A.O. Schwarz. Something that neither Sylvia nor her friends are able to do due to their background.
What is also interesting is that Sylvia keeps Miss Moore’s four dollars. Though some critics might suggest that Sylvia is stealing the money from Miss Moore it is more likely that she is now conscious of the value of money where prior to going to the toy store and in the taxi in particular she had no concept of money. Taking Miss Moore’s four dollars is a valuable lesson for Sylvia. It causes her to think while Sugar can only think about buying sweets with the four dollars. It is also interesting that each of Sylvia’s friends want something from F.A.O Schwartz and it is possible that Bambara is attempting to highlight how similar or equal all children are. Though again only the very wealthy (and white) appear to be able to shop in F.A.O. Schwartz. Which suggests a lack of racial equality and a difference among classes.
The fact that neither Sylvia nor Sugar can walk into F.A.O. Schwartz may also be important as there is a sense that they may feel ashamed of who they are (poor and black). They feel out of place based purely on their class and the colour of their skin. In Sylvia and Sugar’s eyes they don’t feel worthy enough to shop or go into F.A.O. Schwartz. It is only when the other children push them in that they actually enter the store. This pushing action may be significant as it could suggest progress in numbers. Just as an individual might have to join other individuals to protest in mass likewise the action of the children pushing their way into the store suggests something similar. There is power in numbers. Bambara also manages to highlight the innocence of the children particularly when it comes to Flyboy who does not know what a paperweight is. The fact that most of the children don’t have a desk to work on or to do their homework may also be important as Bambara could be using the desk as symbolism for learning. Something that Miss Moore is attempting to promote among Sylvia and her friends. The homemade sailboats made by some of the children which either sink or don’t work may also be symbolically important as Bambara may be using the sailboats as symbolism for paralysis. Just as the boats don’t move across the water likewise the children’s lives may be one of paralysis with no progress made.
It is also noticeable that Miss Moore is giving something to the community, helping to educate the children. Bambara may be suggesting that in order for black people to overcome racial and economic differences they have to help each other. Even if an individual may not be a church goer like Miss Moore. Bambara seems to be drawing on the practical rather than the spiritual throughout the story and may be suggesting that change not only comes from helping each other but by being practical. There is no sense in the story that Bambara is using religion as a tool for progress. Rather it is Miss Moore’s own education that is being used to help the children. Whether each child appreciates it or not. Though one thing that is certain is that Sylvia has been sufficiently affected by her excursion to F.A.O. Schwartz that she is being to think differently. Which is something that can be seen as a positive. Miss Moore and her attempts to educate the local children have had an effect on at least one child. It is as though Sylvia knows there is a lesson to be learned and she needs some time to figure out what the lesson might actually be.
Hi there — having taught this story many times (in fact, just yesterday!), I appreciate some of the light you shed on it. The point you make about power in numbers — how Sylvia and Sugar get pushed through those doors — strikes me as an original one, and worth noting. You may be interested in knowing that the story is a product of the Black Arts Movement, which was named as such by activist and writer Larry Neal. Bambara is associated with the movement; she articulates its philosophy most clearly through the character of Miss Moore: the importance of community, the recognition that white values do not serve black lives, that necessity of radical change in black reality (at the time), and that what is authentically black cannot peacefully co-exist with “the white thing” (Neal’s idiom for American culture). I also cheer your interpretation of the story’s ending: Sylvia needs more time to figure out what the exact meaning of the lesson is. Every year I teach it, several students will conclude that the lesson is if you work hard enough, you too can shop at FAO Schwartz. I always get a kick out of proving to them that Bambara is critiquing that particular mindset. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful review of this.