The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara
“But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.” (Bambara, n.d., p. 6). This was the last
sentiment of Sylvia in The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara. In the short story, Sylvia is a young woman who learns about inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth in society. Her character was depicted as hardheaded and judgmental, and it seemed like her stubborn nature served as a hindrance against her education. However, the story end on an optimistic note as Sylvia did learn her lesson, as evident in the last line.
The main character of The Lesson is Sylvia (Bambara, n.d.). Her name was mentioned only halfway through the story, and Bambara did not give any details about her appearance. The readers only know about the character through the way she speaks. The language used showed she was a young African-American woman who lived in poverty. In addition, Sylvia was portrayed as distant and dislikable.
She had negative things to say about several people, including the junk man and Aunt Gretchen. However, she was most hostile to Miss Moore. Miss Moore was tasked to educate the young ones, including Sylvia. She becomes a credible teacher for the children because she attended college (Bambara, n.d.).
From the beginning, Sylvia exhibited intense dislike for Miss Moore. She criticized her feet and her choice of clothes. She said, “I’m really hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddam college degree” (Bambara, n.d., p. 2). That day, Miss Moore had planned a trip for the children to visit F.A.O. Schwarz to teach them about inequality in society, especially in terms of wealth. The plan was not known to the children, and Sylvia was annoyed that Miss Moore talked to them about money like they were a “bunch of retards” (Bambara, n.d., p. 2). When they arrived in Fifth Avenue, Miss Moore encouraged her students to look at the windows first. The children all saw the expensive toys on display, including the $300 microscope, the $480 paperweight and the $1,195 sailboat (Bambara, n.d.). Then, Miss Moore told the children to go inside the store.
After the field trip, it seemed like Sugar was the only student who learned from the experience. Until the end of the story, Sylvia remained silent about the experience and slightly belligerent towards her teacher. She walked away from Miss Moore without saying anything. While Sylvia’s disrespectful departure implied a seemingly pessimistic end to the story, the truth is that she did learn the lesson and it is her headstrong personality that will allow her to apply what she learned.
Sylvia’s silence on the lesson must not be taken as a sign of hopelessness. She might be arrogant and angry, but she is also a smart girl. Sylvia knew something was wrong when she felt shame holding her back from entering the store. She mused, “But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody” (Bambara, n.d., p. 4). It was her social standing which held her back, as she knew she cannot afford the objects sold inside. Instead of being in awe of such expensive items, she became angry. Bambara (n.d.) wrote, “Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I’m jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth” (p. 5). Sylvia was jealous because she was poor and cannot hold such objects in her own hands. Meanwhile, she became furious enough to consider violence in that instance. For the first time, inequality in society dawned on her. Sylvia asked, “Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it?” (Bambara, n.d., p. 5).
The fury Sylvia felt resulted from the reality she was suddenly exposed to. She was bitter over the fact that while some people can throw away that amount of money on objects they did not really need, there were people like them who struggled to live. However, Sylvia did not remain bitter for long. Bambara (n.d.) wrote in the last line of the story: “But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (p. 5). Among Miss Moore’s students, it was Sylvia who learned the lesson the best. By bringing her students in the store, Miss Moore sought to show them the real problem of social inequality. Miss Moore also taught the students that while such problem exists, there is a way to change the situation. According to Sylvia, this was what Miss Moore said: “Where we are is who we are…But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (Bambara, n.d., p. 5). Sylvia successfully learned both, though she did not speak to her teacher.
The story ends optimistically because Sylvia represents the hope that poor people can indeed overcome their situation. If there was anyone who could rise above poverty, it was Sylvia. She may be stubborn, but she is strong-willed as well. When the story ended, Sylvia is already aware of the injustice in society in terms of wealth. She knew what was wrong in the world she lived in. Her last statement served as a declaration to fight poverty and rise above helplessness. Sylvia’s brief stay in the store made her feel defeated; she was weighed down by shame and overwhelmed by jealousy and anger. However, Sylvia was not the kind of person who enjoyed defeat. She knew what she wanted. She was aggressive. She was not going to be discouraged by the wealth and extravagance she had seen. When she claimed in the end that nobody would ever beat her, she promised herself that she will succeed in life. The rich folks for which the expensive items on sale were made will not bring her down. She will be victorious in whatever she sets her mind to, regardless if was financially motivated or not. In the end, Sylvia became determined to fight the present system and seek greener pastures.
The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara ends optimistically. Despite the cynical and ill-tempered characteristics of its protagonist Sylvia, she emerges as the one who learned the lesson best and has the power to change her life for better. In the midst of poverty and inequality, Sylvia and her unshakeable resolve bring hope in a seemingly unchangeable situation. This is the reason why the story ends on a positive note.
Bambara, T.C. (n.d.). The Lesson. Retrieved March 16, 2009, from www.esubjects.com/curric/general/english_one/unit_two/pdf/TheLesson.pdf
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