Tony Cade’s Educational Lesson

The nature of human beings of accepting the realities of life to such an extent that indifference and passivity become the norm is what proves to be catastrophic for the societal falsehood of the world. The short story “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is about the extreme inequalities children had to face as African-Americans living in Harlem in the 1960’s. Bambara uses the perspective of an oblivious, naive young girl named Sylvia to reveal the genuine understanding of the circumstances she had to “accept” in a world full of injustice. In addition, to express the main ideas Bambara uses an effective technique: first-person narration. Such composition pattern makes the story more evocative since it sounds more personal. The author uses first person to depict the necessary events as seen through Sylvia’s perspective. The purpose of the story is to depict how children can be taught to understand something more than mathematics, how they can become aware of some important social phenomena.

Bambara clearly shows Sylvia’s perspective of Miss Moore from the beginning of the short story. Sylvia has a hostility towards Miss Moore and views her as a lady who dresses properly, has ugly hair and educated speech. Neighbors secretly gossip behind her back, but later find themselves embarrassed by her random acts of kindness. In reality, Miss.Moore is a kind-hearted neighbor that always seeks opportunities to lend a helping hand. Since she has a college education, Sylvia views her in a different light. Sylvia sets a certain respectful attitude towards her by addressing her as Miss Moore, as she is the only woman on the block not called by her first name. In addition, her status is represented by her education because she takes responsibility to educate Sylvia and her neighborhood friends. But the education she provides consists of schooling them for life rather than for the classroom. She instills life skill sets into them, educating them on the value of rent and her views on the unequal distribution of money in the country. She chooses to educate them on other significant life lessons, such as brotherhood. She is a woman who believe in voicing to the younger generation of the inequities that exist in America.

Miss Moore takes Sylvia and her neighborhood friends on a seemingly boring, common trip to learn about mathematics. When Miss. Moore gives Sylvia money to tip the driver, her friend Sugar informs her to give a dime. We can see Sylvia’s immature attitude as she decides to keep the tip for herself, because “ he don’t need it as bad as I do.” But we can see the direct shift between the societal differences between her neighborhood, Harlem, and the place Miss.Moore takes them to, Fifth Avenue. Toni Cade Bambara paints a different world through the vision of Sylvia, as people in Fifth Avenue are dressed up in stockings and fur coats, and at first Sylvia views White folks as crazy. As Sylvia steps onto Fifth Avenue, she is in a different realm but doesn’t quite understand the extreme distinction from her everyday reality.

The experiences they face in the toy store reveal the immense astonishment in the children’s faces. The fact that they are window shopping in the toy store reveals the position they are in. Before they enter FAO Schwarz, Sugar voices her uncertainty of her standpoint as she displays her fundamental morals, saying “Can we steal?” This reveals Sugar knows the items of the store are unattainable in any other way by her and her peers. The first item they see in the fancy toy store is a microscope. At first the children justify the $300 microscope because saving all their allowances combined would take too long. This reveals that the microscope wasn’t too far out of reach to attain for the kids. Then, they come across a paper weight. A mere paper weight costs $480 for white folks, but Sylvia’s friends, Rosie, Giraffe and Flyboy, don’t know what it is. Their confusion is evident as Rosie questions, “So what’s a paperweight?” and Flyboy responds with, “To weigh paper with, dumbbell” but the concept of a $480 paper weight does not make sense for Sylvia. The confusion soon turns into astonishment as they come across a sailboat.

All  Flyboy, Big Butt, Rosie Giraffe, Little Q.T and Sylvia are staring at the “magnificent thing” and recite the price tag as if they were in an assembly: “Hand-crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars.” While all the other kids are left confused, Sylvia is left with a pissed reaction. Although Sylvia doesn’t want to give Miss. Moore the satisfaction of a response to her lesson, she questions the price of a real boat, as the price of a toy boat in this Fifth Avenue store is tremendous. She figures the price of a yacht would be a thousand. The genuine divide is sensed as the price of a toy boat in the Caucasian community is the value of a real yacht, in Sylvia’s point of view. Sylvia’s and Sugar’s hesitancy when Miss. Moore suggestion to enter F.A.O.Schwarz is shown clearly. Bambara makes visible their uncertainty to enter as he takes us into the mental conflicts in Sylvia’s head, “Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. Got as much right to go in as anybody.” This displays the inequality that is sensed in Sylvia as she is reluctant to enter a toy store that anybody can enter. The fact that she has to question her natural rights to enter a toy store parades the inequity that exists. As a child, it is a reward to enter a toy store, but Sylvia feels out-of-place and in trouble as she reminisces about the time when she crashed into a holy church. Sylvia feels the same flood of emotion she felt when she crashed into the church and when she entered F.A.O. Schwarz. She feels judged by her status, language and the color of her skin. In Sylvia’s eyes she doesn’t feel worthy enough to enter, let alone shop at, F.A.O. Schwarz. It is only when Mercedes shoves them in that they actually enter the store. The children tiptoe, hardly touching the luxury games and puzzles, knowing the judgement placed on them. Her shame is carried through when Sugar runs her finger over the boat. Sylvia’s emotions are evoked, “And I’m jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to want to punch somebody in the mouth.” This conveys that Sylvia reluctance to touch the boat was caused by her shame and fear.

The genuine reaction and understanding Miss. Moore wants the children to grasp was the their new perspective of the injustice world they live in, and Sylvia grasps just that. Sylvia’s deep insight into the world she has learned exists after learning the price of the toys is understood as she is profoundly irate. The $35 clown that White folks viewed toys valued equivalent to the price of some of her necessities. With $35 Sylvia and her family can visit her grandfather in the country, pay for the rent and piano. The value of money in the different communities were clear. The authentic lesson Miss Moore wants the children to instill was the sense of inequality they have to face. But unfortunately, not all the children understand this lesson immediately. After the journey to F.A.O. Schwarz, Rosie takes“white folks are crazy” from the lesson, Mercedes thinks that she can shop there with her birthday money and Sugar tells Mrs. Moore what Mrs. Moore wants to hear. While Sugar understands the lesson by perceiving the world as a democracy, Sylvia takes away a profound perspective of herself in a world full of division. Sylvia’s perspective is found when she connects the lesson to a previous lesson of demanding of their share of the pie. Metaphorically, their share of the pie is the fight poor people have to demand for their share in the world. In addition, Sylvia’s perspective is reflected when, “ something weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.” Sylvia instills the obstacles of the world because of her race, but more importantly the desire to achieve rather than accept her current reality.

The lesson Miss Moore gives the children by taking them to high-end toy stores was valuable. Although not all the children received the same insight, Mrs. Moore provided them a glimpse of the inequalities that were set in America. Sylvia comes to the realization that feeling out-of-place is the norm they have to face. Sylvia saying “aint nobody gonna beat me to nothin” sensing her stance in life. She is more aware of the economic discrepancy between different races, and gains a perspective of her stance. Sylvia is angry because there is nothing they can afford to buy, leaving them to shop for unrealistically priced toys. She feels a major divide between what some can afford and others cannot. Sylvia finally realizes they live a life of poverty, the extreme opposite to wealth. As Sylvia and her friends see toys priced beyond the cost of their bills, and Americans who can afford to view the toys as just toys rather than as luxury items shows them the differences in wealth in two different neighborhoods of their city. Throughout the story, Miss Moore tries to educate the children on the sense of inequality they have to face, and stirs within them a desire to achieve rather than accept their current reality.

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