Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, “The Lesson,” takes place in inner city New York. The main character, Sylvia, is a fourteen year old African American girl, who tells the story in a first person narrative. Sylvia mentions Miss Moore, a teacher who felt that it was her duty to help underprivileged children learn. Miss Moore felt there was a lesson to learn at FAO Schwartz, a very expensive, upper class toy store in downtown Manhattan. The reason Miss Moore brings the children to FAO Schwartz is captured in Bambara’s use of symbolism. Miss Moore uses the toys in FAO Schwartz to convey to the kids where they are on the social ladder.
Outside of the toy shop, the children stare at a number of very expensive toys; some of them include a paperweight and a sailboat which symbolize the facts that wealth is not equally distributed and education that and hard work can one day earn the children these things they see. Initially, none of the children, especially Sylvia, know what the paperweight is. She says to herself that, “my eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something.
But for $480 it don’t make sense” (110). After Miss Moore explains “it’s to weigh paper down so it won’t scatter and make your desk untidy” (110) the children still cannot comprehend its use or price. Sylvia could not understand having an expensive paperweight to weigh papers; moreover, most of the children do not own a desk and would not even have any use for the paperweight. Junebug says, “I don’t even have a desk” (110) showing that wealth is unevenly distributed. Some people have enough to spend that much on a paperweight, while others can not even afford a desk to do their homework on.
Miss Moore knows that the kids do not have a desk at home to place their papers on, and they also do not do their homework. Big Butt says, “And I don’t get no homework neither” (110). Bambara uses the paperweight to symbolize the importance of education. Through education the children can create a better life, one in which their basic needs are met. To them four hundred dollars is a life’s worth of work, and it is unfathomable. The price of their future is going to be something that they will have to strive for and look past their current dwellings.
The paperweight can also symbolize that Miss Moore is trying to control them and put them in order, just as a paperweight organizes papers. When the kids arrived in Manhattan, Miss Moore tells them to, “report back to the group,” (111) showing she is trying to organize them. Similarly, the sailboat is also used by Bambara to represent the journey that lies in front of the kids. Sylvia says the sailboat, “is just big enough to maybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the post tight” (110).
In the same way the kittens were strapped to the post, Miss Moore put the children in the cab. The kids did not really want to go and expand their horizons, the same way the kittens did not want to be strapped to the sailboat. The journey into Manhattan was only a cab ride away; Sylvia is astonished by the price, and cannot understand why someone would pay that much when, “my sailboat cost me about fifty cents” (111). The question is then would she always be happy settling for less? Or did she even realize that she might be settling?
Bambara raises interesting thoughts with the use of symbolism. The size of Sylvia’s fifty cent boat and the thousand dollar sailboat are about the same; this, once again, shows that wealth is not evenly distributed. Some people can pay a thousand dollars for a sailboat and Sylvia has to settle for the fifty cent one. The kids responded to the toys by wanting to steal them. Sugar asked seriously “can we steal,” (109) referring to the toys in the store; this reemphasizes the unequal distribution of wealth, furthermore, the way the kids try to overcome this is by stealing from those below them.
Sugar says, “that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it? ” (113). The theme can be recognized by Bambara’s use of symbolism, but also by the way she establishes a difference between social and ethnic classes. The kids “fallout” and obey Miss Moore after she says, “I beg your Pardon,” to Sugar in reply to her question asking, “can we steal” (109). They now know not to steal from the store, but they are willing to steal from other minorities who are less fortunate and can not retaliate.
Sylvia wants to suggest that the other children and she “go to the Sunset and terrorize the West Indian kids and take their hair ribbons and their money too” (109). This statement reveals that stealing does not cause much of a moral dilemma. The question becomes why wouldn’t they take the store’s belongings like the West Indian kids? One could suggest that the kids feel too inferior to steal from the store. This story takes place in the 1950’s, before the civil rights movement, and reveals that there are not equal opportunities for African Americans in society.
Education in the 1950’s, and during the time of the civil rights movement, was the only way for an African American to be elevated in society. In “the lesson,” Sylvia’s attitude toward education is very negative. Sylvia even dislikes Miss Moore, because of her college degree, saying “I’m really hating this nappy head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (109). Throughout the story, Bambara shows that the kids are not on an equal footing with most people. Through “the lesson” Bambara shows that the only way that the kids can be considered equal is through education.