Toni Cade’s short story “the lesson” is about a young black girl’s struggle to recognize the economic and social injustices she faces in 1970s Harlem, New York. Sylvia, the protagonist of the novel, is initially unable to admit that she is a victim of poverty and is unaware of the country’s wealth gap (Graves 88). Sylvia is enraged, but she is oblivious to the inequity that pervades society and contributes to her inexorably precarious economic condition. Miss Moore, the only educated person in the neighborhood, takes Sylvia and her friends on an educational trip to a toy store at F.A.O. Schwartz in Manhattan. Sylvia initially looks upon Miss Moore with bitterness and defiance believing that she is preventing the children from having fun (Cartwright 96). In a real sense, the goal of the trip is to Miss Moore let the children evaluate themselves the economic and social disparities between where they are from and the Fifth Avenue world of the wealthy; hoping it would ignite a desire to learn how they could achieve economic equality. In “The lesson” Toni Cade Bambara addresses how knowledge is the means by which one can move beyond poverty.
One of the themes of the story is the creation of awareness among the disadvantaged youth in the Ghettos on what life has to offer. A human being has a nature of accepting the conditions and realities of life to the extent of setting in apathy and lethargy. Consequently, apathy and lethargy prove to be destructive to the social fabric of the world. In this inaction, Mrs. Moore provides the motivation required for people to realize their God given the right to equality and something better. Miss Moore always pointing out, “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way” (Bambara 61). Miss Moore advocated that poor people have to rise and demand their equal share of the pie. Pie in this sense means the economic and social opportunities in the country. Therefore, the poor children didn’t understand the meaning of equal share of the pie. Hence, the only way for the people to demand their right was through the knowledge that is from quality education.
Another standing issue in the short story is an illustration of the attitude of learning among the poor, and economically disadvantaged people is viewed as a weakness. The engagement between Miss Moore and Sylvia shows the struggle Sylvia has vis-à-vis whether she should not learn things because it depicts weakness to her or to learn and accept what Miss Moore it trying to teach them. Sylvia would rather be doing anything else than listening to Miss Moore (Bambara 61). “This nappy head bitch and her goddam college degree” (Bambara 61). It exemplifies more than everyday dislike of authority by a young adolescent since she has an own perception of the way things work other than being invaded by prying questions of Miss Moore. In the story, there is a negative attitude towards learning which is among the largest hindrances to economic and social growth. “So here go Miss Moore gabbing about the thousands of bacteria in a drop of water and the something other…” (Bambara 63). Sylvia sees no value of the need to know the use of a microscope. Therefore, she does not value the importance of knowledge. It is also seconded when Sugar suggests that learning instruments are outgrown with time. It, therefore, illustrates that knowledge can lead to discomfort, but the discomfort can result in positive change.
The story describes the failure of parents to take responsibilities and educate their children for a better future. The children are being hindered by the arrogance nature of the society which could spend thousands of dollars on toys. It also touches the careless nature of parents in the lower class in raising their children. “Which is how she got saddled with me and sugar and Junior in the first place while our mothers were in a la-de-da apartment up in the block having a good time” (Bambara 63) Miss Moore was the perfect example of a parent, taking the responsibilities of showing them the world from a different perspective and another side of life. Miss Moore was taking the responsibilities of the parents by pointing out education is important if they wanted a better lifestyle.
Also, in this story, Miss Moore intends to create the understanding the division between the wealthy and the have-nots in society (Annas 78). Sylvia and her friends are used to the life in the ghetto which has limited their thinking since it is the only lifestyle they’ve known. There is also a separation of the moral guidelines between the ghetto and the wealthy folks in the fifth avenue (Cartwright 95). It is shown when sugar asks, “Can we steal?” with a serious intonation like she was getting the ground rules squared before she played. One more example is the situation when Sylvia is told to calculate the ten percent of the five dollars to tip the cab driver. Sylvia replies, “And I’m stalling to figure out the tip and sugar say give him a dime. And I decide he doesn’t need it as bad as I do, so later for him” (Bambara 62). Therefore it also depicts the lack of moral guidelines, since Sylvia decides to be selfish with the money she was given. Despite Sylvia cynicism, something has clicked in her, her awareness of her status quo. “What kinda work do they do and how come we ain’t in on it?” (Bambara 63) she questions the status quo. Thus the beginning of knowledge is through questioning and challenging it. Therefore it is only through awareness of the current state of affairs through education that one can be able to fight the cycle of poverty in the ghetto.
In conclusion, Miss Moore has shown people it is a change in the mindset of the way people perceive life that people can change their lives for the better. She got the children out of the comfort zones, out of the daily routine in life to a different environment to spark inspiration among the ghetto youth to demand change and not accept things as they are in their lives.
Annas, Pamela J and Rosen, Robert C. Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.
Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. New York: Random House New York, 1972.
Cartwright, Jerome. Bambara’s the Lesson. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1989.
Graves, Roy Neil. Bambara’s The Lesson. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008.