Sylvia, the narrator in the short story, “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is a dynamic character who helps create the theme that the world around her is separated based on societal rank and race. Her mounting understanding of this concept is derived from Miss Moore, whose character serves the purpose to illuminate the differences among social classes to Sylvia and the other children in Harlem, New York. She is an educated woman, who brings the children in the town on field trips to teach them about society and other important life lessons.
Although Miss Moore evidently has a large effect on Sylvia, the two of them do not get along. In fact, Sylvia even considers Miss Moore an enemy, and resents her, “Our parents would yank our heads into some kinda shape and crisp up our clothes so we’d be presentable for travel with Miss Moore, who always looked like she was going to church, though she never did” (Bambara 388). Sylvia, throughout the story, is unaware what a positive influence Miss Moore’s lecturing has on her and the rest of the children, and although she begins to see the social inequality towards the end of the story, she will never let Miss Moore know.
Sylvia knows that she is poor, but she does not fully recognize the negative effects of her and her family’s lack of wealth until Miss Moore shows her and the other children the toy store. Sylvia’s learning in the story occurs in several stages, and the first stage is her stubbornness. As a young girl, she only desires to have fun out in the streets of Harlem, and not worry about learning life lessons from a woman whom she does not like in the slightest. As the narrator of the story, Sylvia uses vulgar and unkind words to express her feelings about Miss Moore and her educational field trips.
She often acts as though she knows everything, even concerning money when she states, “And Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is, like we a bunch of retards” (Bambara 388). The main character also daydreams in a stubborn fashion, and her daydreams are very important to understanding the story as a whole. She uses these daydreams as a substitute for real life situations. For instance, Sylvia daydreams about her and all the children jumping out at one traffic light and running off to find a barbeque nearby.
She attempts to deal with real life situations by either being very stubborn or attempting to use these daydreams to run away from reality. Another example of her doing this in the story is when she comes up with another plan on the way to F. A. O Schwarz store to go on the subway because she thought it was cooler and she planned on meeting cute boys. Sylvia comes up with these scenarios to fill an empty void. She creates a place in her mind where she is at peace and does not have to be put in any uncomfortable situations, which she deems Miss Moore’s field trips as.
She is frustrated when forced into a situation that is out of her control. Most of these situations are dealing with the outside world of the wealthy and Miss Moore is the one teaching her. The next stage Sylvia undergoes is how she becomes fully conscious of wealthy consumerism. Once she arrived at the toy store, Sylvia finds herself shocked at the utterly expensive things at the toy store. She finds herself mumbling under her breath ‘Unbelievable’ and she was even furious that the outwardly useless items at the toy store were so expensive.
She cannot comprehend why the toys cost so much. For instance, when the children find out that the paperweight costs $480 they are all stunned, but unlike asking silly questions about it like her friends, Sylvia is struggling to understand why: ‘We pile up all over her to see what she pointin out. My eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy… But for $480 it don’t make sense” (Bambara 389). This, as aforementioned earlier, makes her mad, because she does not know why the toys cost as much as they do.
She criticizes why anyone would pay that much for a useless trinket. Hence, she is acknowledging and disapproving the wealthy consumerism world, and alienates herself from it, “Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents? ” (Bambara 390). The next stage Sylvia undergoes is how she puts this concept of consumerism and applies it to herself and how social rank and separation of races plays a role as well. She begins to understand how her and her family are poor with limited merism.
She again daydreams about asking her mother for $35 to buy a birthday clown, but also imagines her mother shooting the idea down and giving her a whole explanation on the value of money. Sylvia begins to ask herself questions about those who spend their money on frivolous items such as birthday clowns and $1000 sailboats: “What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? ” (Bambara 391). Miss Moore’s lesson has transformed the way Sylvia thinks. Before going to the toy store and seeing the high-end consumerism and then beginning to comprehend what that actually meant to her, she was completely in the dark.
Miss Moore helps Sylvia acknowledge her own poverty and reinforces to the children that they don’t have to be poor. In fact, even Sylvia recognizes Miss Moore’s uplifting advice, “She always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (Bambara 391). The understanding of Sylvia’s character is vital to the appreciation of the story. Sylvia is a very dynamic character, which means developing, and her development throughout the story helps craft the theme of the story.
The theme of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara has to do with how some suffer under economic limitations and that race and social standing plays a significant role in society. Sylvia and the other children grow up in Harlem, New York, which is historically known for its poverty. Many people during the time period were being subjugated due to their race, and in this story Miss Moore implies that despite the race of her and the children they can work hard to achieve greatness in their lives. Sylvia changes throughout the story and even seems to be inspired.
She thinks to herself, “Ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothing” (Bambara 391), which tells the readers that she has honed in on Miss Moore’s lesson and decided to change her life for the better. It is at this moment when she reaches her last stage, discovering her own identity. She figures out that she is a strong individual and that hard work and perseverance can get her where ever she plans to go. One appreciates this story because of the multiple and deep layers it has to it. The story shows how a character can undergo a significant realization in their life due to an authority figure.
Sylvia in “The Lesson” demonstrates the central themes of the story through her growth and maturation as a character. She experiences different stages in her journey and then ultimately finds her own identity by the end of the story. She is first very stubborn and does not want to visit the F. A. 0 Schwarz store, then she realizes the upper class consumerism, then she begins to comprehend her own poverty and her level in society, and she finally discovers that she is going to work hard in life so that “no one can beat her at nothin” (Bambara 391).