Lite Reads Review: ‘The Lesson’ by Toni Cade Bambara

The Feminist Bibliothecary’s Lite Reads: The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: Review, #BlackHistoryMonth

We are ready to wrap up our 109th Lite Reads selection, The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara, our final pick for Black History Month. There were questions as food for thought on social media as people had the chance to read it and think about it. I will be sharing my own thoughts here. Spoilers ahead for those who have not read the story yet.

The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara is a 1972 short story from the author’s collection Gorilla, My Love. The story stars a young Black girl named Sylvia in New York City, eager to enjoy a beautiful summer day, but held back with a number of the other kids in the neighbourhood to receive extra tutoring from a local woman, Miss Moore. Sylvia and the other children are miserable and uninterested in the arithmetic Miss Moore is trying to teach them, eager to go have summer fun instead. To capture their attention and to prove a point when she says the children don’t understand real money, Miss Moore takes the students on an impromptu field trip to Fifth Avenue by cab, which she gives them the money for so that they can do the counting. When they arrive, they head to an upscale toy store where they browse the window display. The toys in the window are outrageously priced, many of them more expensive than the annual incomes of the families of the children, such as a toy sailboat that costs over a thousand dollars. When they return to their own neighbourhood, Miss Moore asks the children about what they learn, and Sylvia stops her best friend Sugar from answering in full. When they run off to enjoy the rest of the day, Sylvia is pondering over what they learned, not wanting to be beaten intellectually.

I think the way The Lesson explores economic inequality is interesting because it also manages to provide a concrete explanation of some of these issues to the reader, not just the characters. It isn’t difficult to see that it’s fundamentally wrong that something as simple as children’s toys might cost so much money that it might take the entire annual salary of a lower-income family to afford even one item. To see that these are Black children in a Black neighbourhood and that even setting foot in a toy store in a wealthy, white neighbourhood really drives home the ways these economic inequalities are impacting Black neighbourhoods and Black families. Although Miss Moore says the children don’t understand real money (much to the disgust of our narrator), they’re acutely aware that their families could never afford the toys on display, and they are clearly aware of the racial dynamics of these disparities, remarking “white folks crazy.” Although the children are aware of these issues when presented with them, they are also not really focused on these issues. As far as Sylvia and the other neighbourhood kids are concerned, they aren’t poor, and while they want to spend money when they can, the kids are more worried about what kind of summer fun they can have.

The Lesson also seems to have something to say about the ways we interact with and teach children as adults. Sylvia and her friends aren’t just miserable because they’re being tutored on a beautiful day, they’re also miserable because they feel condescended to. Miss Moore isn’t just offering them instruction, she tells them they don’t know what real money is “like it’s only poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer.” While most kids aren’t going to exactly be excited about extra tutoring on a beautiful summer day when they could be doing just about anything else, including getting ice cream or going swimming to keep the heat at bay, Miss Moore manages to alienate them further by making them feel disrespected. Additionally, she brings the kids to a fancy toy store in a strange neighbourhood to look at toys they couldn’t possibly afford, which feels like a cruel cap to the whole situation. As someone who always shut down in learning situations where the instructor seemed patronizing, I deeply related to the anger Sylvia seemed to feel at the whole tutoring situation, even as I understood and agreed with the points Miss Moore was trying to make. I really related to Miss Moore’s desire to teach these types of social justice lessons to local children, but it was impossible for me to ignore how alienating this type of teaching can be for kids, especially since they really see Miss Moore as an outsider since she isn’t from the community originally and her family isn’t there.

The first-person perspective of The Lesson really helped shape the story, largely due to the adolescent anger that Sylvia seemed to marinate in. I come from a pretty different background from the characters in this story (they are Black and living in New York City, I am white and grew up in a rural community in Canada), but it was still easy to relate to Sylvia and her best friend Sugar being miserable about having extra commitments when they just want to have whatever juvenile fun is available, and it really transported me back to my own childhood. I also thought it was interesting to see which details about the world around them they had absorbed. Sylvia notes that Miss Moore has dark skin, “nappy” hair, doesn’t go to church, and compares her to “the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary.” While she definitely resents the way Miss Moore makes her and all the other kids feel talked down to, most of these things that run through Sylvia’s mind are clearly not her own concerns, but ones she has absorbed from the adults around her. When Sugar begins to draw the conclusions that Miss Moore had hoped they would gather from her lesson, Sylvia stops her, but the story ends with Sylvia trying to sort out her thoughts about the lesson independently out of a desire not to be beaten. This is a truly relatable motivation for trying to gain understanding on a subject, but one that really drives home the youth of the characters.

Overall, The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara made for an interesting exploration of the world from the perspective of a child, especially as Sylvia was so surprisingly relatable. It isn’t the kind of short story I would normally read for fun, but it makes for fascinating writing to explore. I admittedly haven’t read any of Toni Cade Bambara’s writings prior to this, but it makes me want to read more of her work.

I hope everyone who participated by reading the story and following along on social media has enjoyed themselves. If you have more thoughts to add, you can leave a comment here, or join the conversation on FacebookTwitterTumblr, or Instagram. You can also join in on the discussion at Litsy by following @elizabethlk and the #litereads hashtag. The next selection will be available shortly, Sunday, February 28.

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