Review of Toni Cade Bambera's "The Lesson"
Review of "The Lesson," by Toni Cade Bambera
After reading Toni Cade Bambara's, The Lesson, the reader is left with a sense of hope for the first person narrator Sylvia and her friends. Following her and her friends from the slums of New York, to a Fifth Avenue F.A.O. Swartz, one gets an idea as to the kind of environment they came from, the type of education they received, and the sense of economic imbalance they bear witness to. Through this the antagonist, Miss Moore, is able to let the children evaluate for themselves the difference between the Fifth Avenue world and the one they are from, at an age where the impression made upon them might generate a spark of desire to find out how they might achieve the same rewards Fifth Avenue has to offer.
The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, first person narrator, Sylvia. Sylvia is a preteen African American girl, strong willed, intelligent, and the obvious leader of the pack. The story's plot involves a college educated black woman who comes back to an economically disadvantaged neighborhood on weekends and takes the local children on field trips of a sort. On this particular trip she lets the children experience their first ride in a taxicab to a toy store in Manhattan. It is played out through a chronological series of events from the time they leave their neighborhood, until the time they arrive back there.
The exposition introduces the reader to, Sylvia, Miss Moore, Sylvia's friends, and the neighborhood. Sylvia's friends consist of a number of round characters, such as Junebug, Mercedes, Fat Butt, and Rosie Giraffe, as well as the stock characters Sugar, Q.T. and Junior. The setting is what seems to be a 1960' circa slum.
As the story develops the reader gets a glimpse of Sylvia's “street smarts” and leadership role as they travel in the cab to the toy store. The group horses around in the taxi while Sylvia is scheming a way to keep the money for herself. Miss Moore is aware of this when she gives them the money, lending the reader to believe this is all part of the lesson for the day; it is. By doing this she is showing the children the value of money and work. When they arrive at the store the lesson continues as they gawk at the toys in the window and find it hard to comprehend what kind of people have this kind of money to throw away on toys.
The turning point occurs when Sylvia's best friend, Sugar, questions Miss Moore about the fairness of people spending the same amount of money on a toy that some families would use for basic survival needs. This leads to the climax where Sylvia confesses, “ And somethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest.” ( Bambara, 653). This shows Sylvia's feeling of betrayal by her friend along with the realization that she is right, and Sylvia is having a hard time digesting the true facts of inequality, along with the fact that she now feels small herself.
The denouement is the last line of the story where Sylvia states, “But aint nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.” (Bambara, 653). Sylvia has to come out the winner, it's her true nature. The four dollars she had left belonged to her now. That is to say, she felt it was the payment she had earned for the lesson, and her friends betrayal. She decided she was going to be alone for a while to let the lesson sink in.
The author’s characterization was exemplified by the use of the ghetto vernacular, the names given to the children, as well as Miss Moore. The diction reflected the down home speak, and wit of the ghetto in phrases such as, “‘You wanna who that costs what?' she'd say, cocking her head to the side to get a better look at the hole in my head.” (Bambara 652).
The theme of the story is simple, in a country as rich as the United States the disparity between the “haves and have-nots” is ludicrous. It can be summed up by Sugar in the line, “that it aint much of a democracy if you ask me.” (Bambara 653). Miss Moore represented what can be gained through an education, and showed the children what life on the other side of the tracks was like.
Although the characters in the story were represented as black and white, it goes deeper then that pitting ignorance against arrogance. The uneducated children who have no homework, or desks to do it on, being held back by the arrogant nature of a society that could spend thousands of dollars on toys. It also touches on the irresponsibility of lower class parents when it comes to 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 the block having a good ole time.” (Bambara 648 ). Miss Moore showed what a parent should be like; taking the responsibility of showing the world to the children, rather then just passing them off to a relative, or making them the responsibility of the community.
Name symbolism is shown in the name of the antagonist “Miss Moore.” The reader can look at it in a number of ways: Taken as it is spoken, as more, can show that she has more to offer the children, can show them that there is more to life than the scenes from the ghetto that they are accustomed to. Another way to look at it is as if she were the stable structure the children could be moored to, as a ship moored to a dock to keep it from floating adrift. A third scenario would be of a literary reference to Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor general who is betrayed and winds up being played the fool by the villain Iago, and eventually commits suicide. In this third scenario, it identifies with a black, rising to power only to be held back by the selfish interest of a white.
The children's names also act as a symbolic identifier. Sugar, for example, throughout the story comes off as a sweet and innocent child punctuated by the statement, “ You know, Miss Moore, I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs.” (Bambara 653). Mercedes name suggests that her family has a bit of money (which it does), and Q.T. The small quiet one as the name suggests. There is also an imagery in some of the names which help the reader to form a mental picture of the character. Rosie Giraffe, evokes the image of an awkwardly tall girl with a long neck, possibly a reddish tint to her hair, Junebug gives the impression of a wiry very hyper sort of girl, and Fat Butt, well, a portly figure with an abundance of posterior perimeter.
The irony of Sugar's question, “Can we steal?” (Bambara 649), shows the separation of moral guidelines between the ghetto and Fifth Avenue. Just asking this question, in sincere innocence, to an authority figure personifies the norms dealt with in the ghetto as opposed to Manhattan.
The tone of the story was as charming as the story itself. It was set by the way the narrator, Sylvia, viewed the world. The reader could see the world from her perspective, and almost understand her thought process. The way it was related in ghetto-speak made each character that much more alive.
On the same note the author also allowed for the reader opportunities to step away from the narrators point of view, and view it from the antagonists point of view, societies point of view, or the fly on the wall observation.
The story is a well crafted, humorous reflection of serious problems that exists even more today then when it was written. The lack of proper education in the poorer areas of the country, the need for parents to stand up and take responsibility for their children, and the inequality, and huge gap that exists between the rich and the poor in the United States today.
The use of Sylvia as the protagonist gave the story a real quality to it. The world as seen through the eyes of a pre-teen, streetsmart kid, and the realization that there was still a lot to learn in an unfair world. Every character was well defined, and seemed to have a life of their own. It was a vivid easy to comprehend story which I believe should be a staple, if not requirement, in every urban public school
Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Literature and society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Pamela J Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J 2007. P. 647-653