Children's Reactions in "The Lesson"

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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 questions that the more hard-boiled northern children will not deign to ask, such as what is a paperweight. Q. T., the quietest and the youngest, says little but he stares ‘‘hard at the sailboat and you could see he wanted it bad.’’ Q. T. also voices the obvious: "Must be rich people shop here.''

Of this group of children, Flyboy is the most outspoken. The "wise man from the East'' plays the know-it-all. He announces that a paperweight is "To weigh paper with, dumbbell,'' and Miss Moore is forced to correct him. Flyboy knows how to use his poverty and deprivation to make people, especially ‘‘white folks,’’ feel pity for him; ‘‘Send this poor kid to camp posters, is his specialty.’’ It is also Flyboy who firsts notices the sailboat that shocks all the children. His ultimate reaction to the afternoon, and to Miss Moore's final question, also chillingly echoes an adult's—‘‘I'd like a shower,’’ he says. ‘‘Tiring day.’’—the words of a child too soon exposed to the harsh realities of the world.

At the far end of the spectrum is Mercedes. From the beginning of the story, she is presented as
outside the circle of children, the butt of their irritation. As the story continues, differences between Mercedes and the others are continually raised. For instance, she is the only child who has a desk at home. "I have a box of stationery on my desk and a picture of my cat. My godmother bought the stationery and the desk. There's a big rose on each sheet and the envelopes smell like roses,’’ she says in a statement that draws the anger of the other children; '"Who wants to know about your smelly— stationery,' says Rosie Giraffe fore I can get my two cents in.’’ Mercedes aspires to these symbols of the "white" world, because they are the symbols of success. Her interest in education and her more articulated speech liken her to Miss Moore, but unlike Miss Moore, Mercedes does not see the signifiers of the white world as pointing out problems within the African-American world. She would emulate Miss Moore in order to be like whites, not to improve the circumstance of the African-American community.

Only Mercedes expresses no shock at the prices of the toys. She enters the store first, moving primly and properly, "smoothing out her jumper and walking right down the aisle.’’ The other children, in contrast, do not belong. Their entrance is marked by chaos; they ‘‘tumble in like a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong.’’ When the other children exclaim over the expensive sailboat, acknowledging that they buy sailboat sets that cost fifty cents, Mercedes attempts to deflate their pride: ‘‘But will it take water?'' At the end of the day, when the group has returned to the neighborhood, Miss Moore asks what they thought of the store. Mercedes' only response is ‘‘I' d like to go there again when I get my birthday money.’’ She has taken no greater lesson from the day than to learn to want to be more like the white people who can so recklessly and carelessly spend their money. Her exclusion from the group is physically symbolized as they "shove her out of the pack so she has to lean on the mailbox by herself.''

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Mercedes are Sugar and Sylvia. They are allies before they enter the store. Sugar asks Miss Moore, straight faced, if she can steal, a sassy question that easily could have come from Sylvia. Also, the girls express the initial reaction to the toys in the store; they both scream in one voice, ‘‘This is mine, that's mine, I gotta have that, that was made for me, I was born for that.'' But once the real examination of the toys begins, Sugar is not seen or heard from again until they are in the store. There Sylvia and Sugar split up, signifying their ensuing division. Sugar's actions further anger Sylvia; Sugar ‘‘run a finger over the whole boat,’’ something that Sylvia cannot bring herself to do. Once they are on the train returning to the neighborhood, Sugar and Sylvia seem to have regained their solidarity as Sugar motions to Sylvia's pocket where Miss Moore's money is. But Sylvia is again let down by her friend when Miss Moore asks what the children thought of F. A. O. Schwarz. Sugar speaks up with the words that Miss Moore most wants to hear: "I think . . . this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don't it?’’ She pleases Miss Moore despite Sylvia's warning nudges.

Sylvia feels betrayed by Sugar's alliance with Miss Moore even though Sugar is verbally expressing the feelings that Sylvia shares, even if she has not yet acknowledged them within herself. It is clear from Sylvia's reactions that she is utterly shocked and appalled by the realization that some people can afford to spend so much money on toys. ‘‘'Unbelievable,' I hear myself say and I am really stunned,’’ is her reaction to the sailboat. The word stunned has a double meaning. Firstly, Sylvia is stunned by the sheer cost, but she also is stunned that she is so moved that she voluntarily responds to Miss Moore's lesson. She attempts to stimulate her intense dislike of Miss Moore. When Sylvia asks how much a real boat costs, Miss Moore won't tell her, instead saying: ‘‘Why don't you check that out . . . and report back to the group?’’ This ‘‘really pains’’ Sylvia. ‘‘If you gonna mess up a perfectly good swim day least you could do is have some answers.’’ What is clear, however, as Nancy D. Hargrove writes in The Southern Quarterly, is Miss Moore has ‘‘touched her deeply, messing up far more than one day.’’

Miss Moore's field trip also has produced in Sylvia an unwelcome sense of inferiority. The pride that Sylvia wears like shining armor is wounded. Sylvia, accustomed to owning her neighborhood and her own actions, feels out of place in this bastion of white wealth where Sylvia and the children ‘‘all walkin on tiptoe and hardly touchin the games and puzzles and things.’’ When she and Sylvia ‘‘bump smack into each other’’ these two friends ‘‘don't laugh and go into our fat-lady routine.’’ Intimidated by the store and the monstrous price tags, Sylvia grows increasingly angry that Miss Moore has forced this lesson upon her.

Unable to deal with her anger and not truly understanding where it is directed—"And I'm jealous and want to hit her [Sugar],’’ Sylvia thinks when Sugar touches the boat. "Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth’’— Sylvia reverts back to her tough pose. ‘‘So I slouch around the store being very bored and say, 'Let's go.'’’ Once on the subway, though she and Sugar reconvene at the back of the train, Sylvia is unable to let go of the afternoon. She mentally compares what essentials her family could purchase with the lowest-priced toy she saw—a $35 birthday clown.

Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?

She is beginning to channel her anger toward a real focus as she reflects upon Miss Moore's previous lessons as well:

Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don't necessarily have to be that way, she 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.

Sylvia still cannot acknowledge that she feels the validity of Miss Moore's words. Instead, she congratulates herself on retaining Miss Moore's change from the taxi ride.

After Sugar's exchange with Miss Moore, Sylvia stands on her foot and finally gets her to be quiet. "Miss Moore looks at me, sorrowfully I'm thinkin. And somethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest.’’ Although Sylvia does not name it yet, and although Sugar, despite her previous disclosure, wants to return to their normal activities, Sylvia is unable to do so:

I'm going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and run even faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

The focus of the story's final sentence reaffirms Sylvia's determination and implies that Miss Moore's lesson, with the ultimate goal of igniting the children's sense of injustice and leading them to enact societal change, may very well have taken hold.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Lesson,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

The Dance of Character and Community

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The question of identity—of personal definition within the context of community—emerges as a central motif for Toni Cade Bambara's writing. Her female characters become as strong as they do, not because of some inherent "eternal feminine'' quality granted at conception, but rather because of the lessons women learn from communal interaction. Identity is achieved, not bestowed. Bambara's short stories focus on such learning. Very careful to present situations in a highly orchestrated manner, Bambara describes the difficulties that her characters must overcome.

Contemporary literature teems with male characters in coming-of-age stories or even female characters coming of age on male typewriters. Additional stories, sometimes written by black authors, indeed portray such concerns but narrowly defined within crushing contexts of city ghettos or rural poverty. Bambara's writing breaks such molds as she branches out, delineating various settings, various economic levels, various characters—both male and female.

Bambara's stories present a decided emphasis on the centrality of community. Many writers concentrate so specifically on character development or plot line that community seems merely a foil against which the characters react. For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension. Thus, her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur.

Bambara's women learn how to handle themselves within the divergent, often conflicting, strata that compose their communities. Such learning does not come easily; hard lessons result from hard knocks. Nevertheless, the women do not merely endure; they prevail, emerging from these situations more aware of their personal identities and of their potential for further self-actualization. More important, they guide others to achieve such awareness.

Bambara posits learning as purposeful, geared toward personal and societal change. Consequently, the identities into which her characters grow envision change as both necessary and possible, understanding that they themselves play a major part in bringing about that change. This idea approximates the nature of learning described in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he decries the ‘‘banking concept,’’ wherein education becomes ‘‘an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.'' Oppressive situations define the learner as profoundly ignorant, not possessing valuable insights for communal sharing.

Although many of Bambara's stories converge on the school setting as the place of learning in formal patterns, she liberates such settings to admit and encourage community involvement and ownership. Learning then influences societal liberation and self-determination. These stories describe learning as the process of problem solving, which induces a deepening sense of self, Freire' s " intentionality.''

For Bambara the community benefits as both "teacher" and "student" confront the same problem—that of survival and prospering in hostile settings, without guaranteed outcomes. The commonality of problems, then, encourages a mutual sharing of wisdom and respect for individual difference that transcends age, all too uncommon in a more traditional education context. Bambara's characters encounter learning within situations similar to the older, tribal milieus. The stages of identity formation, vis-à-vis the knowledge base to be mastered, have five segments: (1) beginner, (2) apprentice, (3) journeyman, (4) artisan, and (5) expert.

Traditional societies employed these stages to pass on to their youth that information necessary to ensure the survival of the tribe, such as farming techniques, and that information needed to inculcate tribal mores, such as songs and stories. Because of Bambara's interest in cultural transmission of values, her characters experience these stages in their maturational quest. In her stories these levels do not correlate with age but rather connote degrees of experience in community. . . .

The movement from beginner to apprentice occurs when the beginner confronts a situation not explained by known rules. Someone steps in who breaks open the situation so that learning can occur. For Sylvia, in ‘‘The Lesson,’’ Miss Moore was that person. Sylvia was an unwilling apprentice, resenting Miss Moore's teaching.

Miss Moore wants to radicalize the young, explaining the nature of poverty by taking her charges from their slums to visit Fifth Avenue stores, providing cutting-edge experiences for the children, making them question their acceptance of their lot. When asked what they learned, various ideas surfaced. ‘‘I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs"; "I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don't it?’’

The children, encouraged by Miss Moore, coalesce into a community of support that encourages such questions. For these children these questions represent rules that no longer work, assumptions that are no longer valid.

The adult Miss Moore has stepped out of the adult world to act as guide to the children. Sylvia, for her part, profoundly affected by the day, concludes, ‘‘She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.’’'

Sylvia's determination to defeat her poverty represents movement to the next level, that of journeyman. No longer hampered by a strict adherence to established rules, the journeyman feels confident enough to trust instinct. Risk becomes possible as the journeyman extrapolates from numerous past experiences to stand alone, even if shakily. At this point the community must provide support without heavy-handed restraint or control as the journeyman ventures forth. . . .

Toni Cade Bambara's stories do more than paint a picture of black life in contemporary black settings. Many writers have done that, more or less successfully. Her stories portray women who struggle with issues and learn from them. Sometimes the lessons taste bitter and the women must accumulate more experience in order to gain perspective. By centering community in her stories, Bambara displays both the supportive and the destructive aspects of communal interaction. Her stories do not describe a predictable, linear plot line; rather, the cyclic enfolding of characters and community produces the kind of tension missing in stories with a more episodic emphasis.

Her characters achieve a personal identity as a result of their participation in the human quest for knowledge, which brings power. Bambara's skill as a writer saves her characters from being stereotypic cutouts. Although her themes are universal, communities that Bambara describes rise above the generic. More fully delineated than her male characters, the women come across as specific people living in specific places. Bambara's best stories show her characters interacting within a political framework wherein the personal becomes political.

Source: Martha M. Vertreace, "The Dance of Character and Community,'' in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155-71.

Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love

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[A] painful experience of disillusionment appears in what is perhaps the best of the fifteen stories, "The Lesson.’’ Again, the story centers on and owes much of its vitality to its first-person narrator, a young girl named Sylvia. Arrogant, sassy, and tough, with a vocabulary that might shock a sailor, Sylvia is also witty, bright, and vulnerable. In the course of the story she learns a lesson which disillusions her about the world in which she lives, about the society of which she is a part. Against her will, she is forced to realize the unfairness of life and, as a black girl, her often low position in the scheme of things. Although she fights against this realization and indeed refuses adamantly even to acknowledge it, it is clear to the reader that the young girl is irrevocably affected by the events of the day.

In the opening paragraph, Sylvia sets the stage for the action to follow by introducing her antagonist, Miss Moore, while revealing some facets of her own personality as well as the kind of environment in which she lives. Having a college degree, Miss Moore has taken upon herself ‘‘responsibility for the young ones' education.’’ Accordingly, from time to time she takes them on "field trips,'' during which they learn a great deal about life. Sylvia clearly does not like Miss Moore or her lessons: "And quite naturally we laughed at her. . . . And we kinda hated her too. . . . [She] was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do.’’ In describing Miss Moore, Sylvia reveals her own toughness, which she communicates largely through strong language (‘‘sorry-a-s horse," "g-d-n gas mask,’’ ‘‘some ole dumb s-t foolishness’’), as well as her own pride and sense of superiority (‘‘[M]e and Sugar were the only ones just right''), both of which will be seriously damaged in the course of the story. Finally, she indirectly indicates the type of urban environment in which she lives: ‘‘And we kinda hated [Miss Moore] . . . the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn' t halfway play hide-and-seek without a g-d-n gas mask.’’ She also reveals that she and her cousin live with their aunt, who is "saddled" with them while ‘‘our mothers [are] in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time.''

The action begins on a hot summer day when Miss Moore "rounds us all up at the mailbox'' for one of her outings. This one will be on the subject of money, although the implications are much wider by the story's end: ‘‘... Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is, like we a bunch of retards.’’ Even though Sylvia affects boredom with the subject, it is clear that the mention of their condition of poverty is unpleasant to her, apparently because it causes her to feel inferior: ‘‘So we heading down the street and she's boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain't divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature’’ (italics mine).

To illustrate her point in a striking manner, Miss Moore takes the children to an expensive store on Fifth Avenue where they can see for themselves the extravagant prices and then realize the difference between their lives and those of the very wealthy. A skillful teacher who provides the opportunity for the children to have their own flashes of insight, Miss Moore simply leads them from window to window, casually asking or answering questions. They are amazed at a $300 microscope, at a $480 paperweight (an object with which they are not even familiar), and finally at a $1,195 toy sailboat. Even Sylvia, as superior and untouched as she has tried to be, is astonished at the latter, whose price seems beyond all reason: ‘‘'Unbelievable,' I hear myself say and am really stunned.’’ Although she herself does not realize the cause of her anger (‘‘For some reason this pisses me off’’), the reader understands that it lies in the injustice of things in general, but more specifically in Sylvia's frustration at being unable to purchase and possess even one of the toys displayed tantalizingly before her.

Another unpleasant, and in this case unfamiliar, emotion overcomes her as Miss Moore tells the children to go into the store. Ordinarily aggressive and daring, Sylvia now hangs back: ‘‘Not that I'm scared, what's there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can't seem to get hold of the door. . . .’’ Her shame arises from her sense of inferiority, of not belonging in such an expensive store, communicated indirectly and subtly by her comparison of the children's chaotic entrance to ‘‘a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong.’’ Once inside, her painful feelings become intense: "Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I'm jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth.’’ Angry not only at her own deprivation but also at Miss Moore for making her aware of it, Sylvia bitterly lashes out at the older woman: ‘‘Watcha bring us here for, Miss Moore?’’ Attempting to help Sylvia acknowledge her anger, Miss Moore responds, ‘‘You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?''

Although too proud to admit her emotions to Miss Moore, Sylvia on the way home reveals her longing for one of the toys, her realization that what it costs would buy many items desperately needed by her family, and her anguish at the injustice endured by the poor:

Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen's boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kind of work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?

When she seems toughly to dismiss the painful lessons of the day, ‘‘Messin' up my day with this s-t,’’ the reader is aware that they have in truth touched her deeply, messing up far more than that one day. When she returns home, the overwhelming effects of her disillusionment are confirmed through her description of time (she seems years older than she had been that morning) and her revelation that she has a headache: ‘‘Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinkin' so hard.’’

Her only protection against further pain and humiliation seems to be in not acknowledging formally, aloud, what has been so powerfully demonstrated to her. Yet, when Miss Moore urges the children to express what they have learned, her cousin Sugar blurts out the harsh facts in what is to Sylvia a bitter betrayal, an admission of the injustice, inferiority, imperfection of her world. Responding to Miss Moore's question, ‘‘Well, what do you think of F. A. O. Schwartz?’’ Sugar surprises Sylvia by saying, ‘‘You know, Miss Moore, I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs.’’ The older woman urges her on to further exploration of the subject by commenting, ‘‘Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?’’ (This is a rather blunt and heavy-handed statement of the theme). When Sugar, rejecting Sylvia's desperate attempts to silence her, asserts, ‘‘I think . . . that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me,’’ Sylvia is ‘‘disgusted with Sugar's treachery.’’ However, as the story ends, she is going ‘‘to think this day through,’’ even though she still appears determined to maintain her former arrogance and superiority: ‘‘But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.''

‘‘The Lesson’’ is especially fine in its sensitive portrayal of Sylvia, in its realistic use of black dialect, and in the view of American society it offers from the vantage point of the poor.

Source: Nancy D. Hargrove, ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love,’’ in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215-32.

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Critical Overview