What is the theme of the story "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara? "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.

What is the theme of the story "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

"The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 Miss Moore, a well-educated black woman, wants the children in her neighborhood to be exposed to the more cultural aspects of life. Supported by the local parents’ group,  she takes on the challenge of teaching the local kids about life outside of the projects.  Toni Cade Bambara uses the story “The Lesson” to expose the African-American problem of social inequality and the lack of quality education for the black children.


The author uses the lesson by Miss Moore of poverty of  the impoverished children of New York City’s ghetto.  It is apparent that all of these black children have hopes and desires just like other kids their age. 

Poverty does not mean stupid or lacking in desires.  The teacher wants to empower the students to make a change in their future by seeing the importance of education and what their lives could be like instead of the poverty in which they live.

Protagonist and Narrator

At the center of the story is Sylvia, a young black girl, who serves as the protagonist and narrator of the story:

Back  in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. 

Sylvia’s cynical attitude make her an unreliable narrator.  Everything is tainted by her bitterness and defiance.  She does not need Miss Moore or her fancy ideas.  To Sylvia, Miss Moore is the enemy who prevents the students from having fun. 

Using the point of view of the sassy Sylvia makes the story fun despite the seriousness of the subject.  Eventually, Sylvia understands what Miss Moore wants and looks at her as the teacher not the enemy.

Today’s Lesson

The important lesson for this day centers on a trip to FAO Schwartz Toy Store in downtown Manhattan.  Miss Moore hopes to show the students another side of life and point out that the education is important if they want the better lifestyle.

Miss Moore has the students use math skills in figuring tips, the cost of cab fares  the prices of the toys, and most importantly, the uselessness of some of the items.  From this, hopefully the students will understand the difference between their  lives and the people who can afford these toys.  

The students see a paperweight that is useless in their lives.  A sailboat that costs $1,000 makes the point that the price of some of the toys could feed a family of six or seven. Some of the children get the message that there is social inequality, and they want to change the course of their lives. 

Sylvia fights to accept the lesson of  Miss Moore.  She gets mad at her cousin for taking part in the discussion with the teacher. Despite her hard façade, Sylvia may be the only student that actually gets the lesson. 

What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it? Where we are is who we are... But it don't necessarily have to be that way, Miss Moore always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don't none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place.

Despite her cynicism, Sylvia gets it.  Something has clicked in her.  At the end of the story, she wants to be by herself to think over what she has learned. Still cynical and bitter, Sylvia is at the edge of change. 

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of Bambara's "The Lesson" has to do with the unfairness of socioeconomic status under which the children suffer.  In the story, Miss Moore takes the children to F. A. O. Schwartz to show the children how expensive the toys are there.  The children cannot believe that people have enough money to pay for such luxuries.  They are also surprised by the social etiquette that they must use while at the store.  The children feel very out of place because they are not in their element.  They start to connect their feelings to the realities of others who live lives in varying states of poverty.  Miss Moore subtley tells the children that it is possible for them to rise above the conditions of their community so that one day they can work to correct the inequalities in the world.  Although this message is not fully realized by the children, they do start to consider Miss Moore's lesson, and the story ends with the hope that this message will continue to resonate with the children.

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