The predominant theme in “The Lesson” composed by Toni Cade Bambara is creating an understanding to adolescents of all the opportunities life has to offer; a lesson on social class and having a choice which society you choose to live in. Miss. Moore who takes on the responsibility to educate the young ones has intentions of more than just taking the children to the store for amusement. Miss Moore’s informal lessons are aimed at educating the neighborhood children about how their lives differ from those of rich white children, nonetheless Miss Moore wants the children to see they can live the life of the rich and high society.
An essential element that adds to the depth and enhances a reader’s comprehension of “The Lesson” is the author’s use of symbolism throughout the story. Sylvia, the narrator of the story, is a born leader. She is used to being in charge of what the rest of her friends think and do. Sylvia resents the appearance of Miss Moore in her life. Miss Moore is a new kind of black woman. She has no first name but is always addressed with her title. She has “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup”(Bambara 98).
The neighbors are not quite sure how to respond to her, which is illustrated by the way Sylvia describes her as someone to laugh at, “the way we did at the junk man,” (Bambara 98) who is considered arrogant and acting above his place. Sylvia also describes Miss Moore in terms of being an unpleasant obstacle, like the winos “who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls”(Bambara 98). Clearly the author shows the extent of which Sylvia dislikes Miss Moore. Although the people in the neighborhood are unsure of Miss Moore the parents of the children allow her to take them on an outing.
Miss Moore, the children’s self appointed mentor, takes it upon herself to further their education during the summer months. She feels this is her civic duty because she is educated. She used F. A. O. Schwarz, a very expensive toy store, to teach them a lesson and inspire them to strive for success and attempt to better themselves and their situations. The extreme differences between the children’s neighborhood and the neighborhood of the toy store are first illustrated by the fact that the white people on Fifth Avenue wear furs and stockings even on a hot summer’s day.
Then we check out that we on Fifth Avenue and everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is”(Bambara 99). The children are thrown off balance in this neighborhood, as if it were a foreign country where even the approach to temperature is different. To Miss Moore, education is the key to more money and improved social conditions. To Sylvia, being educated means seeing things as they are. Sylvia and Miss Moore both have a considerable amount of pride.
Sylvia thinks Miss Moore shows disrespect when she describes their neighborhood as a slum and their families as poor. Bambara has indicated that Sylvia’s family is striving for better conditions through the mention of the piano rental. Miss Moore views the children’s acceptance of their economic condition as ignorance and their ignorance as disrespect for their race. Miss Moore wants to change this attitude and encourages the children to demand more from the society that keeps them down. By the end of the story, both of these characters have made their points.
Sylvia realizes that she feels in competition not only with Miss Moore, but also with her good friend Sugar, who is ready to slide back into their usual behavior after having had some surprising insights about the day. Rather than accompany Sugar, Sylvia decides to go her own way and makes a promise to herself that no one will get ahead of her in the future. Miss Moore’s character, with her emphasis on education, is the symbol of one way to fight the usual, fatalistic acceptance of economic conditions by the poor “The Lesson” is a wonderful work of fiction because of its use of language, humanistic theme, and symbolism.
Courtney from Study Moose
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