In a general way, the short story I will be writing about today, Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” is about the reverse side of “endur[ing] the misfortunes of others,” which is what the mostly unseen rich white people in the story do; it is about learning to think beyond one’s own advantage and gain the ability to form strong bonds with others for political and social purposes. Yet, grouped around the main adult figure in the story (a college-educated, “properly” taught member of the African American community named “Miss Moore”), the children in the story compete, and riotously and in laughter bring about the minor misfortunes of the other children, their friends, by jeering at them, engaging in physical displays of hostility, taking things away from them and so on and so forth. Which is to say, they are acting like many a child in many a place and time. But their time and place happens to be New York City, in some place near or like Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant (where Bambara herself grew up), and they are bored, antagonized, and sometimes puzzled by the class and ethnic consciousness which Miss Moore is trying to teach them.
Miss Moore does not give many lessons an outright exegesis, of course; rather, she confronts the children with the situation as it is and allows them to draw their own conclusions. As children, they often are sidetracked by side issues and unimportant details, or at least by non-essential features of the scene. And yet, when she takes them to view the large toystore F. A. O. Schwarz on Fifth Avenue, they all seem to understand the lesson, even when its main outcome is that they are frustrated by what they learn: the cost of a simple model sailboat at this elite toystore is enough to allow their families many necessary items of daily existence.
Though the children are allowed to give the five dollars to the cab driver and retrieve the change (which Miss Moore never asks them for) and two of them keep it defiantly after she has had her chance at impressing them with what they need to overcome to be equal citizens, it is in fact possibly this defiance itself–though wrong-headed in this instance, since it is aimed at Miss Moore, who is their mentor and wants them to succeed–which will give them the energy and knowledge and strength to defy what is oppressing them. Sugar, when asked for her conclusions about the toystore, comes out with the knowledge of what they’ve seen, which causes her to say “‘[T]his 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?'” Sylvia, the main character, is just as cognizant of the lesson implied, but she spends her time trying to impede Sugar from articulating the truth by standing on Sugar’s foot while Sugar attempts to answer Miss Moore. She even ends by rejecting Sugar’s peace offering to share the extra cab money they’ve scored by refusing to make friends again. Still, her energy and strength are the two other components I’ve enumerated which can help the children, and she races away from Miss Moore and Sugar and thinks to herself, “‘[A]in’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.'” Thus, she too has absorbed “the lesson,” though her reaction to it is not to take the rest of the money and derive what small advantage the day allows. Instead, she proposes to go “to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through.”
We see therefore that Sugar, who has the correct intellectual answer to the problem, yet decides to take the rest of the day as a sort of holiday from further thought about the situation while enjoying the benefits of the money she so seldom has at her disposal, while Sylvia is planning for the future, though at first she was not willing to be cooperative with Miss Moore to the point of answering her intelligently. She may or may not be partially right to suspect the path of learning Miss Moore has taken, yet it is from Miss Moore’s perspective the right thing to do for her to help out her own community by making things for them, doing things for them, and going about enlightening their children about the “something better” which nearly every human soul not especially blessed by fate and fortune wishes for. The misdirected hostility of the children towards her “lessons” is in fact possibly derived from a suspicion of lessons which others, seemingly built on the same model as Miss Moore (though perhaps whites or consdescending fellow African Americans), may have articulated. The children must thus decide for themselves which models are true to the heart and which are “false leaders.” Toni Cade Bambara is quoted by Ann Charters as saying of herself, “While my heart is a laughing gland and my favorite thing to be doing is laughing so hard I have to lower myself on the wall to keep from falling down, near that chamber is a blast furnace where a rifle pokes from the ribs.” In this story, we see both the laughter of the children and their rough play with one another, and the “blast furnace” and “rifle” which are at the source of their reactions.