An Essay On The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara

Prompt: How does Sylvia feel about Miss Moore, and why? How do you know? Do her feelings change over the course of the story?


Sylvia, the young narrator and protagonist of The Lesson, describes her neighbor, Miss Moore, as a “nappy-head bitch” with a “goddamn college degree” (par. 2). Sylvia is not fond of Miss Moore, but, to be fair, Sylvia does not seem that fond of anyone except for her cousin, Sugar. In fact, Sylvia describes everyone besides her and Sugar as either “old and stupid or young and foolish” and says that she and Sugar “were the only ones just right” (par. 1).


So, even though Sylvia is a child, she is obviously not the warmest and friendliest of people. Many people, including her Aunt Gretchen and other neighborhood kids, draw her ire. Her dislike for Miss Moore, though, does seem to be exceptional. Perhaps her feelings about Miss Moore are set apart, because she is set apart from the rest of the neighborhood. They are all black and low-income, but Miss Moore has the aforementioned college degree. She has “nappy hair”, uses “proper speech” and wears “no makeup” (par. 1). Upon observing these things about Miss Moore, Sylvia says, “quite naturally we laughed at her…and we kinda hated her too” (par. 1). Sylvia complains that Miss Moore is “black as hell” and is “always planning these boring-ass things for us to do” and “always looked like she was going to church, though she never did” (par. 1).


Sylvia’s special dislike for Miss Moore seems to be rooted in the fact that Miss Moore feels a sort of responsibility to help educate the poor neighborhood children. “She’d been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education, and she not even related by marriage or blood” (par. 1). Sylvia doesn’t think it’s Miss Moore’s place to try and educate her, and she doesn’t find value in the things that Miss Moore has to teach her. The suggestion that there are things Sylvia needs to learn from Miss Moore also suggests that Sylvia is ignorant in some way. That is not a suggestion that Sylvia takes kindly to at all.


On the hot summer day when the story takes place, Miss Moore has planned an outing for a group of children in the neighborhood, including Sylvia. Sylvia, whose name we don’t yet know at this point in the story, introduces all of the children by their nicknames: Sugar, Flyboy, Fat Butt, Junebug, Q.T., Rosie Giraffe, and Mercedes. The children gather together with Miss Moore and before they even depart Sylvia is thinking about how she is “tired of this” and would “much rather go to the pool or to the show where it’s cool” (par. 2). Miss Moore asks the children if they “know what money is”, which offends Sylvia (par. 2). She is incredulous to think that Miss Moore believes them so uneducated that they don’t understand the concept of money. Sylvia hilariously points out that Miss Moore must think “it’s only poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer” (par. 2).


As the group sets off Miss Moore begins “boring [the children] silly” with talk about “what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country” (par. 3).