Describe how Jon in "Civil Peace" and Sylvia in "The Lesson," are able to rise above their circumstances?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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[The stories' meanings may be perceived in different ways by different people. The best references I can give are specific examples from each story.]

In Toni Bamabara's short story "The Lesson," and Chinua Achebe's "Civil Peace," both protagonists are able to rise above their circumstances.

The biggest difference is the age of the two protagonists: Jon is a husband and father, and Sylvia is still just a kid.

Sylvia understands Miss Moore's "lesson," but she won't admit it.

"You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?" Givin me one of them grins like she tellin a grown-up joke that never turns out to be funny. And she's lookin very closely at me like maybe she plannin to do my portrait from memory. I'm mad, but I won't give her that satisfaction. So I slouch around the store bein very bored and say, "Let's go."

As they travel home, Sylvia thinks about the trip to the store able to put things in perspective.

I'm thinkin about this tricky toy I saw in the store. A 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.

After their day out, Sugar runs ahead; Sylvia takes her time to think. "Democracy" does not apply to everyone: this concept has grabbed Sugar and Sylvia's attention, but it will take time before Sylvia can act on this knowledge. However, she does not whine that she cannot have what others have. Her realization strengthens her determination to one day rise above her poverty. She says:

But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

In "Civil Peace," Jon has the ability to change his world, for which he feels blessed. During the Nigerian Civil War, he and his family could have lost much more than they did.

Achebe writes:

Jonathan Iwegbu counted himself extra-ordinarily lucky. 'Happy survival!' meant so much more to him than just a current fashion of greeting...It went deep to his heart.

Examples of Jon making the best of his situation include:

  • Jon uses his bike as a taxi to make money.
  • The family returns to their home to find it still standing.
  • The family works together to make more money to repair the house.
  • Jon opens a bar for the soldiers in his house because he cannot go back to his job as a miner, and many others have not been so lucky.

When the thieves attempt to rob Jon and his family, Jon calls for help, but no one comes—they are too afraid. Facing the danger of the men (toward not just Jon, but his entire family as well), Jon only has the "egg-rashers" which he just newly received; otherwise, his money is gone. Jon gives what he has to the men and they leave.

The next day, the neighbors express their regret for his loss. He explains that he had never depended upon what was taken, so it doesn't worry him. He feels, again, lucky that things were not worse.

Both Sylvia and Jon have forward-thinking attitudes. Sylvia is too young to do anything now, but is committed to succeed one day, and remain strong. Jon is older, and he can do things to improve his and his family's lot in life, and does so with thankfulness: he continues to feel greatly blessed.

Both protagonists work to rise above their circumstances: Jon with thanksgiving, Sylvia with resolve.


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