Symbolism in "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.

Essay by onyi02College, UndergraduateA+, February 2006

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Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson," takes place in inner city New York. The main character, Sylvia, is a fourteen year old African American girl, who tells the story in a first person narrative. Sylvia mentions Miss Moore, a teacher who felt that it was her duty to help underprivileged children learn. Miss Moore felt there was a lesson to learn at FAO Schwartz, a very expensive, upper class toy store in downtown Manhattan. The reason Miss Moore brings the children to FAO Schwartz is captured in Bambara's use of symbolism. Miss Moore uses the toys in FAO Schwartz to convey to the kids where they are on the social ladder. Outside of the toy shop, the children stare at a number of very expensive toys; some of them include a paperweight and a sailboat which symbolize the facts that wealth is not equally distributed and education that and hard work can one day earn the children these things they see.

Initially, none of the children, especially Sylvia, know what the paperweight is. She says to herself that, "my eyes tell me it's a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something. But for $480 it don't make sense" (110). After Miss Moore explains "it's to weigh paper down so it won't scatter and make your desk untidy" (110) the children still cannot comprehend its use or price. Sylvia could not understand having an expensive paperweight to weigh papers; moreover, most of the children do not own a desk and would not even have any use for the paperweight. Junebug says, "I don't even have a desk" (110) showing that wealth is unevenly distributed. Some people have enough to...