Toni Cade Bambara’s "The Lesson"

After teaching and working in schools for 16 years, I had an epiphany yesterday. Everything that is wrong with Memphis (insert your school system here) City Schools can be found in Bambara’s highly anthologized short story, The Lesson. I’ve assigned and discussed this work of fiction a number of times over my last six years as a college professor. During a discussion yesterday my students, which consist of both traditional and non-traditional students, raised a number of interesting theories in regard to the main character Sylvia. If you’ve never read The Lesson stop reading this post, pull it up on the internet, and spend about 30 minutes with Toni Cade.
The Lesson on the surface appears to be a power struggle between a young person and an adult. In many lectures students state that it is a coming of age story that utilizes society as a means to understand how a teen learns about the world around them. The story certainly has elements that would lead a discussion in this direction. However, what I realized yesterday was that, while everyone in the country is attempting to throw money at the American Educational System, while everyone is attempting to create districts that improve by joining great school districts with mediocre districts, no one is truly addressing the true issues that exist in education.

Bambara introduces Miss Moore in The Lesson. A woman who is driven by her own commitment to her people. She has been educated and realizes that it is her duty to return to her neighborhood and give back. Her giving back is in the form of taking the kids in the neighborhood on field trips where she can teach them about various educational subjects. Her ultimate goal is to make the kids understand that geography is not fate. Heraclitus’ words (Geography is fate) discussed by Ralph Ellison in 1971 led to an analysis of the Black student in America. Ellison realized that education had failed to take into consideration that a student’s struggles stem from where they come from. In The Lesson, Miss Moore realizes that if the students can be introduced to different experiences they will be able to move beyond their geographical boundaries.
My epiphany yesterday was that reading The Lesson can give any person an idea of what is wrong with schools. Miss Moore who has decided to give of her time, without compensation, represents teachers in the educational system who are underpaid, yet willing to sacrifice. The unfortunate thing for Miss Moore is that the parents are using these educational excursions to get free time. They are basically pushing the kids off onto Miss Moore not because they think that Miss Moore has something to offer.
The narrator of the story Sylvia is a young girl who speaks with the edge expected of a teenager struggling with the conflicts of growing up. Sylvia makes comments that sound a lot like the words of an older person. She represents the thinking of her parents. In her household she overhears the parents deriding/disrespecting Miss Moore when Miss Moore leaves the house. The parents make light of Miss Moore’s looks and her education. These conversations by the parents become the foundation for the ideas of Sylvia. Miss Moore is not only fighting the mores and reality of society in post civil rights America, she is a teacher fighting to educate students who are being taught to not respect education by their parents. Miss Moore is also encountering students who are not comfortable in their own skin, physically and literally. These students would rather attack each other first instead of being attacked by their peers. They name call, push and curse like sailors in an effort to be heard. The most important revelation yesterday was in Sylvia’s reaction to her cousin/friend Sugar who begins to become receptive to Miss Moore’s lesson. Sylvia literally stomps Sugar into silence just when Sugar is answering and understanding the purpose of Miss Moore’s lesson.
Sylvia represents the culture that is preventing the American Educational System from improving. America has literally decided to stomp on the foot of its children. Parents instead of supporting the educational system deride and disrespect teachers. They fail to support their student’s education and in turn children no longer have a real respect for education. Miss Moore in the end recognizes Sylvia’s anger in learning and Sylvia’s decision to stomp on and prevent the other children from learning, but Miss Moore does not say anything to Sylvia she looks at her with sorrow. Miss Moore represents those teachers who are silent and who fail to capitalize on a learning point. The epiphany that the students came to was twofold:
1. Black people prevent Black people from learning.
2. Black people will surround themselves with people who are not as smart as them because they look smarter and any shortcomings can be blamed on others.
3. The reason Black education/life is not as great as it could be is because Blacks are inefficient, apathetic and only look for acceptance instead of greatness.
In The Lesson is the complete and clear problem with education. Education will not be improved with money or school consolidation. Education is simply a reflection of the society. When education becomes valued as the answer to economic and personal success, any form of education, then the schools will improve. Toni Cade Bambara understood this, why is it so hard for us to understand?