Where We Are Is Who We Are
Where We Are Is Who We Are
In “The Lesson”, Toni Cade Bambara is trying to get across personal growth and discovery of identity through the main character; Sylvia, and her friends. The children’s teacher; Miss Moore, is trying to get them to understand the social inequality endemic America experienced at the time. The narrator, Sylvia, views Miss Moore as an antagonist. She denies the children a chance to go for a cool swim during a hot summer day, and only followed her half-heartedly after being made to by their parents. She views the older people as old and stupid, and her age mates and those younger than her as young and foolish. She sees that only she and her friend Sugar, a sidekick that she takes everywhere with her, as the only ones just right.
The author, born in Harlem, New york in 1939, was trying to relay some of her personal experiences in the ghetto, specifically Harlem at that time, having lived the first 10 years of her life in the ghetto1. She cited the richly diverse population of the area as to have contributed to her life lessons. She quotes to having learnt the power of the word from “the speakers on the Speaker’s Corner” in Harlem, crediting the musicians of late 1940’s and 1950’s as to having given her “voice and pace and pitch”1. Toni recognizes her mother; Mama Helen Brent Henderson Cade Brehon, as to having inspired her to literary writing by encouraging her to partake in cultural activities available in the cultural spaces in New York during the 1940’s and 1950’s including museums, performance spaces and galleries2. Bambara witnessed the struggle between blacks and whites, and she worked to change the state of illusion, demolish myths, and celebrate a struggle within a strangling and exploitative capitalist society3. Therefore, in her writing she brought forth a lot of these struggles and therefore cultured a revolution and sensitization to the realities in America at the time.
Sylvia is a very sassy girl, and her sass can easily be confused for arrogance. Her sass leads her to hate and generally oppose to anything she perceives as new or out of her comfort zone. She is comfortable with her life and as long as Sugar is around her, everything else and everyone else seems stupid and foolish. Sylvia views herself as a “leader of the pack”. Her authoritative nature and an attitude makes her view herself as superior to her friends; especially Sugar. This leads her to stand on Sugar’s foot when she comments on Miss Moore question at the end of their trip. Sylvia’s sass also makes Miss Moore to hand her the responsibility of handling the cab fare when the group is split since they have to travel in two cabs. This is since she is viewed as to being able to handle the group in the absence of Miss Moore. Unfortunately, it is this same attitude that makes her decide that she needs the “tip” more than the cab driver and also inclines her not to give Miss Moore back her 4-dollar balance4. Sylvia is not proud, or arrogant, or inconsiderate, she just has a high self-confidence that enables her to face the world.
Sylvia learns that there are toys that their families cannot afford, and yet are on sale at the store. She finds herself re-reading the price tag on the sail boat on sale at the store and for some reason, “it pisses her off”5. She realizes that it would take both Junebug and Big Butt “too long” to save up enough money to buy the $300 microscope. She recognizes the gap in “class” when her friends start comparing their sailboats to the one at the store6. Her viewing of a $35 dollar “clown that summersaults” initiates her involuntary self-reflection on responsibility. She finds herself imagining what would happen if she asked her mother to buy her a toy worth $35. She notes that thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too7. Sylvia then begins to question the people who can afford the toys on sale at that store, how they live and why her family and her friends’ families aren’t able to live that way. This establishes her curious and inquisitive nature. She does not just remain confident in her niche, but wonders off in mind, spirit, and presence to those beyond her niche.
Sylvia learns about humility and how it feels to feel inferior to someone. When they turn to enter the store, for some reason, neither she nor Sugar can enter and they remain standing at the door. Somehow, she feels too inferior to walk in in the first place. This teaches her a lesson in humility, and that she does not always have “everything under control”. She is amazed as Mercedes walks in first, straight down the aisle, undaunted by the price tags of the toys, and confident that her “birthday money” could land her one of them. The rest of them hurdle together, gazing at the toys they cannot afford, intimidated by the price tags, for reasons which none of them could clarify. The inferiority she felt in that store teaches her to be grounded and not always feel “on top of the world”; as everyone in the store looking at them like they are out of place.
Sylvia is a very strong individual, and her persistence leads her to feeling indomitable after the trip. “Ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin!”8She says, reflecting on all she had seen and learned at the end of the lesson, determined to prove she is worthy of entering the store. She is not bothered by the fact that Sugar runs ahead of her, but rather she is engulfed in deep thought. Consequently, Miss Moore knows that no matter how stubborn she seems, Sylvia has a lot of potential and is very intelligent. Even as Sylvia stands on Sugar’s feet in defiance of Miss Moore, she can tell that Sylvia has learnt something. “Anybody else learn anything today? Looking dead at me”9Sylvia states.
Miss Moore wants the children to recognize their potential and question the acceptance of their lot, thus radicalizing them to work harder and achieve the things that society reserved for a certain class. She teaches them that just because they were born at a disadvantage does not mean that they have to stay at a disadvantage, it is up to them to work hard and lift themselves up, and none gets the lesson more than Sylvia, though she tries her best not to show it. They get to evolve through their own initiatives of the experiences they undergo. “Where we are who we are”10, Miss Moore says.
Bambara Cade Toni. “The Lesson.” 15 March 2014, http://cai.ucdavis.edu/gender/thelesson.html
Enotes.com. “Toni Cade Bambara.” 15 March 2014,