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The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara – Analysis Essay for English 101

2012 April 4
by recessionjuice
Toni Cade Bambara - The Lesson - Essay English 101 - Picture Credit: Social Justice Columbia University and Barnard College

Short Fiction Analysis Essay focusing on the notion that “literature is political” and the comment the story makes about the characters socio-economic position


It is February, which means that it is officially Black History Month. Take “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara as just the story to diversify any reading list with some authors who aren’t so familiar. Bambara was born in 1935 (Schirack) and was an active participant in the civil and women’s rights movements that helped to shape the culture of the 70’s. Virtually all people want the right to a decent life and education, no one argues that. Not everyone grows up the same way or with the same privileges, which is generally understood. Bambara’s, “The Lesson” shows the story of young children growing up in poverty and how an educator creates the environment to help them not only discover, but succeed in learning some very important issues about their immediate world around them. Education for those children in poverty stricken neighborhoods, such as Sylvia’s, proves itself difficult to acquire, however is essentially the best way to move beyond poverty; shown by the way of role models, attitudes towards others, first impressions, exposure, realizations, and Miss Moore the educator.


Today, it would be hard to fathom virtually an entire community that lacks an education. Miss Moore was the only educated black woman in Sylvia and Sugars neighborhood. Sylvia and Sugar are best friends and also cousins, they share in the experiences and lessons taught from Miss Moore. She is the primary resource of education for both girls during the story. Being educated, this made Miss Moore a rare spectacle as most children would likely “go to the pool or to the show where it’s cool” (Bambara), however Sylvia and Sugar were being forced to meet with Miss Moore by their parents. From the parent’s point of view, “. . . it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education” (Bambara). The parents themselves realize this is very important for their children, but they do not necessarily take their own advice and at times fail to meet some of their own obligations for the children.
Parents, who live in poverty stricken neighborhoods, are not always the best role models they could be for their children, discouraging them. At times they are even displeased towards role models like Miss Moore in their own communities for no apparent reason. Sylvia herself notices this type of treatment when she hears the grown-ups speaking about Miss More, “behind her back like a dog” (Bambara). Although, the parents will “shape and crisp up our clothes” (Bambara), before they present their children to Miss Moore. We see a double standard displayed by parents talking about another behind their back, but never saying a word to Miss Moore directly. If the parents are speaking of Miss Moore, behind her back, what becomes of children like Sylvia’s attitudes towards education and their educators? One must wonder what they held against her, other than her education. The parents show a type of persona that is unfortunate towards Miss Moore.

Sylvia and Sugar both display negative attitudes toward Miss Moore, applying similar views of education and educators as their role models. They “kinda hated her too,” (Bambara), mentioned Sylvia early on. Most parents can agree that children soak up all kinds of traits from others they hear, meet, and speak with. During this time, we know that Sylvia hears fellow grown adults talking distastefully about Miss Moore. If a child is brought up in an environment of negativity for extended periods of time, they may mimic characteristics of that environment to others around them. This negative attitude towards the only educator around them can be puzzling to understand, but presents itself as one of the challenges of acquiring a decent education in their neighborhood. The children like Sylvia and Sugar are still learning and are absorbing new thoughts all the time.

First impressions are vital for children like Sylvia, as this is the very first judgment they make on whatever the particular issue at hand may be. Miss Moore brings the children to downtown New York for a field trip to FAO Schwarz, for one of her lessons that day. After arriving on Fifth Ave, it appears this becomes the first real impression the kids have ever had of white folk. Again, keeping in mind the period of time this was in, and the remembering that these children live daily staring at poverty. The first impression is that white folk are very much different from them, with fancy clothes or so Sylvia says, “. . . everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy” (Bambara). Additionally, Sylvia’s cousin, Sugar asks Miss Moore, “Can We Steal?” when they are nearing FAO Schwarz toy store. This would seem to be a no-brainer answer for most, but she was asking a legitimate question on her own behalf. These comments are genuine feelings spoken from the mouths of Sylvia and Sugar. It is accepted that when experiencing something new, a no-brainer question to some, will be inquired about from others as part of new processes. Broadening a young mind by viewing how others are different or relate to them is an important part of education.

Being exposed to situations, which are unfamiliar and unknown, can be a significant learning lesson for the young. Sylvia had always considered herself very outgoing and a risk taker. She openly acknowledged in the story that “Back in the days . . . me and Sugar were the only ones just right,” (Bambara). However, during the field trip Miss Moore takes them on, she fails to have enough confidence to enter the door first at FAO Schwarz, instead opting to “kinda hang back” (Bambara). This is the same girl who went, “. . . into the Catholic church on a dare” (Bambara) and now displays a timid, shy, and embarrassed side of herself, declining to be the first to enter. Sylvia starts to wonder why she is holding back, as this usually does not happen. For the first time Sylvia sets back, and begins to learn a lesson from the toy store field trip. Feeling out of place is a normal and the experiences and lessons taken from Fifth Ave continue to expand their minds to new revelations.

If one does not realize they are in a specific type of situation, they may either remain in the situation or will ultimately escape it, education is crucial to obtaining the knowledge to do the latter. Sylvia and Sugar do not realize they are growing up in poverty until Miss Moore the educator teaches them this lesson. Miss Moore escorts the kids out of the toy store and finally asks them their own thoughts about the trip. Sylvia is angry because there is nothing she can afford to buy, thus left to window shop all of the toys for the day. Sugar tells Miss Moore that “this is not much of a democracy if you ask me.” (Bambara); feeling a serious divide between what some can afford and others cannot. At this time Sylvia herself thinks, “something weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest” (Bambara). That “weird” is finally realizing that they are indeed living a life in poverty, the opposite of wealth. Although, this does not stop them from achieving more, it puts some questions they may have had in perspective. Without the opportunity of education like this, they may have remained ignorant to these facts. To have the young children speaking about this openly to each other is a great step in the right direction.

Miss Moore’s education to the children, such as Sylvia, proves to be a very important and valuable resource the kids obtain. Miss Moore represents a consistent and dynamic personality throughout the story for the kids. She is able to give the children’s mind exercise and put them through enough working scenarios for the material to “click” for them. By providing the children opportunities like fields trips to Fifth Avenue in New York or “next week’s lesson on brotherhood” (Bambara), she captures the children’s attention by bringing in a variety of routines. Without this type of role model and educator, such as Miss Moore, the kids would never have questions like, “Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” (Bambara).


The value of education for the children end up outweighing the obstacles these children must face, when growing up in poverty. Readers of this story are reminded of both the difficulty and the value of education through Sylvia and Sugars realizations, exposure to the unknown, first impressions, attitudes, role models, and Miss Moore the educator. Miss Moore gives many opportunities for the children to take advantage of the best gift being given to them, education. They go from being close minded about some issues regarding poverty and their own statuses, to realizing the bigger and more important issues they should be concerned about. Communities must make sure to endow their children with education properly. A Miss Moore in every community like Sylvia’s and Sugars would certainly go a long ways. What can you recommend to your community to help improve education?

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. 1972. Web. 2 2 2012.

Schirack, Maureen. Toni Cade Bambara. Ed. Lauren Curtright. 11 08 2004. Web. 12 02 2012.