Through experience, a person gains a broader understanding of what life is like. Children may believe that they possess a wealth of knowledge but new lessons, even if valiantly resisted, are absorbed to create a new way of looking at things. Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” deals with social inequality, a concept which Miss Moore tries to introduce to her young charges through practical lessons that reveal what society is all about. More importantly, the short story is about learning life’s lessons even if they are harsh.
Thus, the lesson referred to by the title is not the typical lesson that one would expect; this is not a lesson that can be learned from just any four-walled classroom but this is one that is learned through living. Moreover, the short story teaches the readers that there are people like the young narrator Sylvia, who do not know, and do not exert an effort to know, what life is like beyond their own communities and social status. These same people are content, thinking that they have the right kind of life.
Therefore, they do not strive to better themselves in order to claim equality with people considered to be part of the much wealthier, upper class. On the other hand, they may just be showing symptoms of a defense mechanism where they try to show that they do not really care if they are poor and downtrodden; they are tough and do not want to see themselves in any other light. Bambara makes use of dialect in order for Sylvia to become a fully realized and realistic narrator.
The reader can almost hear the impoverished and black, but confident and often abrasive girl who refuses to listen to anything that Miss Moore teaches her and the other children. “…this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary…Miss Moore was her name”(Bambara). Sylvia may not be fully aware that she and her friends are prejudiced against Miss Moore.
This can be compared to some students who are terrified of one subject, for example Math, and actually do terribly in the subject because their fear has frozen them and has made them easily give up. Sylvia is not the type of girl who gives up but she is the type of girl who questions authority. Miss Moore, with all her lessons, is authority. Therefore, she expects that this lady with the “goddamn college degree” (Bambara) must be uppity and arrogant about what she knows, not genuinely caring about her pupils.
In some way, like the students who are blocking lessons because of fear and difficulty, Sylvia is blocking Miss Moore’s lessons. World wealth is unfairly distributed according to Miss Moore’s lessons. The same amount of money poor people have to use in order to survive is actually being used to buy the rich man’s mere toy: “…clown that somersaults on a bar then does chin-ups just ‘cause you yank lightly at his leg. Cost $35…Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grand-daddy Nelson in the country.
Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats? ” (Bambara) The thoughts that are racing in Sylvia’s head reveal that no matter how hard she tries to resist learning from Miss Moore’s lessons, the older woman has actually succeeded in capturing her interest and inquisitiveness. Sylvia has actually learned. She is actually thinking despite her outward antagonism. The “thinking” is her response to Miss Moore’s lessons.
Since Sylvia us the narrator, she cannot help but reveal to the audience what she thinks and feels. Though she may not admit it even to herself, she knows that the lessons are taking effect because she recognizes that they have a generous purpose. However, she continues using the facade of not seeing the point of what deep inside, she is beginning to see the value of. Sylvia is still afraid to admit that Miss Moore has succeeded; it is too humiliating for someone like her to acknowledge the importance of Miss Moore’s authority.
Sylvia is a leader, but she is not strong enough to admit her own weaknesses which the lessons give light to. “I am disgusted with Sugar’s treachery. So I stand on her foot one more time to see if she’ll shove me. She shuts up, and Miss Moore looks at me, sorrowfully I’m thinkin’. And somethin’ weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest…I walk away and Sugar has to run to catch up and don’t even seem to notice when I shrug her arm off my shoulder” (Bambara). As is demonstrated by the way Sylvia interacts with her friend Sugar, the young narrator is used to being in command.
Thus, the reality that proves her to be underneath others because she belongs to a social group that struggles with its hand-to-mouth subsistence is difficult to swallow. She recognizes the value of the lesson but she has chosen to walk away. This saddens Miss Moore who recognizes a young girl who has potential as a leader but who uses that inherent ability the wrong way. The girl, on the other hand, feels strange about her new awareness. Miss Moore is a symbol of the possibility of climbing the social ladder.
Because of an education, she has achieved an awareness of the existing imbalance in society. This awareness is prerequisite to the desire to ameliorate one’s status. Though Miss Moore has not gained riches or a higher social class (she is still black and poor), she plans to sow into young minds the same awareness. To spread the wisdom is to multiply the chance to join forces into improvement. But for any program proposed, there is an opposition. In this case, it is the stubbornness and restlessness of youth, especially in a strong personality like Sylvia.
However, Miss Moore is able to get her point across. Even Sylvia’s friend, Sugar is able to respond to the lesson. If Sylvia has decided to support Sugar with another question or comment directed to Miss Moore, the teacher will be able to declare her lesson a success. Interest coming from such unlikely sources may also spark the interest of the other students. Miss Moore’s class can be then considered socially aware. Miss Moore teaches her students not only to count the amount they need to pay for anything they want to buy, she also teaches them an important lesson: the economics of society.
The initial response to this lesson is disbelief and slight contempt towards white people, who are generally perceived to be wealthier and freer with their money. The shock that the students express is a response to the lesson whether they like to look interested or not. There is a response. There is the realization that beyond their world the money that can buy food for several weeks in their households can only afford to pay for a single toy whose value they cannot comprehend. Indeed, in society the placement of value can sometimes be questionable.
While there are some people whose main concerns are the basic necessities: food, shelter and clothing, there are also those who live in luxury and can at any time literally burn their own money. With more riches gained, more wants surface that give way to a desire to go much further beyond than buying what is only needed. It seems that new necessities are invented, such as dressing up pets – something the poor will consider as petty or even cruel but some middle and upper class people may consider as “cute”. In “The Lesson”, Bambara illustrates social inequality through Miss Moore’s class field trip.
She also shows through Sylvia’s reactions and inner conflict the effect of injustice towards the people at the bottom of the social ladder. People like Sylvia wants to refuse learning the lesson because it opens a new challenge which may lead to failure; failure and frustration are not acceptable to someone like Sylvia. Nevertheless, Miss Moore’s lesson is powerful and true, and has touched even her most cynical student. Work Cited: Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson. ” Charter, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction Compact Fifth Edition. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999. 62-67.