March 7, 2015
“The Lesson” is among Bambara’s best-known stories, and I really love it. It combines her focus on social justice with her interest in telling stories about children maturing. One of the most provocative elements of this story is Sylvia’s opaque response to Miss Moore’s lesson. The Schwarz angers her, she does not understand why, and cannot decide whether to direct that anger at Miss Moore, at Sugar, or at white people. Yet despite her ...view middle of the document...
For example, they berate Mercedes when she talks about her stationery, and push her out of their circle when she talks about returning to the store. However, they also become irritated at the way that Flyboy frequently mentions the fact that he is homeless. This persistent animosity, combined with everyone’s distrust of Miss Moore, speaks to the insularity of their community, and a general distrust of foreigners. People find ways to separate themselves, whether by race, income, or geography.
In “The Lesson,” Bambara seems to endorse Miss Moore’s opinion that economic inequality is symptomatic of a flawed society. However, the lesson does not arise organically from the children’s experiences – rather, it comes from a character who is very different from the other adults the children know, and who is considered strange in the neighborhood. In other words, it has to be forced down their throats. This explains why a child, especially a rebellious one like Sylvia, is resistant to the lesson. However, the pervasive truth of it lingers, and Bambara suggests that having seen the extent of inequality will not soon fade from this observant girl's consciousness. Education and awareness might be hard, but they are necessary.