Oct 19, 2010

Notes on Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"

Characters:

Sylvia: the narrator and protagonist, a sassy, defiant African-American girl who resists the educational overtures of Miss Moore. The story's plot centers on a "teaching moment" or pedagogical breakthrough, where Sylvia is disturbed out of her complacency, having been exposed to the other side of the social ladder.

Sugar: one of Sylvia's better friends, a sidekick if you will. Sugar noticeably picks up on Miss Moore's lesson faster than Sylvia, and she even defies Sylvia's authority in the process, which contributes to Sylvia's feelings of disruption.

Flyboy, Fat Butt, Mercedes, Rosie, Junebug, Q.T.: other children who accompany Miss Moore on the field trip to F.A.O. Schwartz

Miss Moore: college educated woman who "gives back" to her community by volunteering to assist with the children's education. Ostensibly, or at least viewed from the narrator's perspective, Miss Moore is the antagonist of the story. She is preventing the children from having fun on their own terms, saddling them with boring, pointless instruction. When we step back with the understanding that Sylvia's point of view is limited and unreliable, we recognize that Miss Moore is an actual ally to the children; her mission is to raise their consciousness, to teach them to recognize the social inequality endemic to America. She adopts techniques reminiscent of Paulo Freire's problem posing methods, as discussed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead of teaching the children knowledge in the abstract, e.g. arithmetic, Miss Moore forces them to apply their math skills to real world, practical situations: paying a cab fare and calculating the 10% tip, pricing the items in the toy store, which serves as the basis for a larger life lesson about equal opportunity, thus making the children understand their disadvantaged position on the social scale. Her toughest sell is Sylvia. At the end of the story, Miss Moore has triumphed, in that Sylvia is determined to think the problem through and moreover do something about it.

The plot of the story takes the form of a journey from the Harlem ghetto to downtown Manhattan (F.A.O. Schwartz) and back. The cab ride to the store helps to build the dramatic tension (can Sylvia calculate the tip?, will the children behave?). The crux of the action takes place at the store, from the outside looking in, and then inside the store proper. We see the children taken out of their comfort zone. They experience an alienation effect. What are these poor kids doing in a store with toys that they could never afford? Bambara evokes their growing awareness primarily through dialogue and descriptions of their reactions.

Bambara leaves little doubt as to the meaning of the lesson, and some critics might accuse her of being overly dogmatic; however, what rescues the story from heavy-handedness is the telling of the story. Putting it in the saucy words of the stubborn, bossy Sylvia, we get to share in an intimate way the sea change occuring within her. Imagining the story told in the third person would likely result in a pedantic exercise. Told in the first, the lesson feels like the beginning of a personal transformation.
Bambara makes effective use of imagery, especially in the toy store. The microscope, paper weight, and sail boat all have lessons to teach. The microscope has symbolic value, for in its ability to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye, the microscope objectifies what Miss Moore would have the children discover in themselves, their unseen, unnoticed, blindness to their own oppression. The paper weight helps them to realize that they have no papers worth holding down. And the $1000 sailboat makes them acutely aware of their economic deficits. "Where we are is who we are," the teacher says. And now the children realize what she means.