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Children's Reactions in "The Lesson"

(Short Stories for Students)

According to Teri Ann Doerksen writing in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Toni Cade Bambara's first short story collection, Gorilla, My Love, "celebrates urban African-American life, black English, and a spirit of hopefulness inspired by the Civil Rights movement.’’ By 1972, when the collection was published, Bambara had already established herself as an advocate for African-American and women's rights, and many of her stories were a literary call to arms; Bambara saw in her writing the opportunity to initiate resistance to the cultural—and racist—norms of her day. Toni Morrison wrote of Bambara in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations

There was no doubt whatsoever that the work she did had work to do. She always knew what her work was for. Any hint that art was over there and politics over here would break her up into tears of laughter, or elicit a look so withering it made silence the only intelligent response.

‘‘The Lesson’’ is one of several stories in Gorilla, My Love that feature a strong-willed adolescent female narrator. Over the course of one afternoon, Sylvia is forced to an unpleasant awareness of the unfairness of the social and economic system that prevails in the United States of the 1960s. Sylvia lives in a "slum" neighborhood. Her family has moved from the South—presumably to better their financial circumstances, as did so many southern African Americans throughout the twentieth century—but they find themselves living in the ghetto. Only one person in the neighborhood distinguishes herself—Miss Moore, a symbol of changing times. Unlike the other African Americans, Miss Moore is college educated and speaks in standard English. She disdains to go to church. Her physical appearance alone denotes her differences. She has ‘‘nappy hair’’ and wears ‘‘no makeup.’’ Most crucial for the neighborhood children, she takes upon herself the "responsibility for the young ones' education’’ and exposes them to the world outside of their neighborhood and the truths it holds. On the afternoon the story takes place, she takes a group of children, including Sylvia, to F. A. O. Schwarz, an expensive toy store. The lesson she wants to impart is the economic inequity that exists in the United States, and for the most part, she succeeds admirably in her goal.

One unusual aspect in a story of this brevity is the number of characters included. Miss Moore brings eight children to the store, and all of these children have a different perspective on the events of the day. The children are alike in that all of them recognize the exorbitant cost of the toys, particularly a sailboat that costs $1,195. (Remember that ‘‘The Lesson’’ takes place within a decade after a study revealed that 42 million American families lived on less than $1,000 per year.) The children, however, can be broken into three categories: those who acknowledge the outrageous prices of the toys (Big Butt, Rosie Giraffe, Junebug, Q. T., and Flyboy); those who show no understanding of the greater significance of these toys (Mercedes); and those who openly or tacitly acknowledge the economic injustice the toys demonstrate (Sylvia and Sugar).

Of the larger group of children, each child does react to the expensive toys in a somewhat distinctive manner. Big Butt reacts on a visceral level. He sees the microscope and declares "I'm going to buy that there,’’ when he is not even sure what a person uses a microscope to look at. Junebug reflects a more simplistic approach. When Miss Moore explains what a paperweight is, he figures she ‘‘crazy or lyin''' because "we don't keep paper on top of the desk in my class.’’ When she explains that people might use a paperweight on their desks at home, he says, ‘‘I don't even have a desk,’’ but then turns to his older brother Big Butt for confirmation: ‘‘Do we?'' Rosie Giraffe, vulnerable as a recent immigrant from the South, asks the pointed...

(The entire section is 4,715 words.)