In 1982, during an interview with Kay Bonetti, Toni Cade Bambara said, “When I look back at my work with any little distance the two characteristics that jump out at me is one, the tremendous capacity for laughter, but also a tremendous capacity for rage.” Both sentiments come across in stories from her collection Gorilla, My Love. Her narrators are typically sassy, young African American girls whose insights about what it means to be black and poor in U.S. society offer the reader laughter, but also seethe with a quiet rage that such inequality can exist in a country that promises justice. I originally taught Toni Cade Bambara’s story “The Lesson” to help my junior and senior students at Jefferson uncover and write about lessons they’ve learned about race, class, gender, and sexual identity, but when I taught it to a group of freshmen in Jefferson’s Young Men’s Academy, I learned to shift and adjust the lesson as I listened to their stories. So this “lesson” is about what I taught, but also what I learned from these young men about what it means to grow up male in our society.
In this story an educated neighbor, Miss Moore, gathers up the neighborhood children, including Sylvia, the sharp, wisecracking black girl who narrates the story, and takes them on field trips. Miss Moore had been to college and “said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education.” In this story, Miss Moore takes Sylvia and the other children to an FAO Schwarz toy store on 5th Avenue in New York City. Sylvia learns a lesson about money—who has it and who doesn’t. The children resent Miss Moore for disturbing their summer vacation with her education plans. “And she was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do, us being my cousins, mostly, who lived on the block cause we all moved North the same time and to the same apartment then spread out gradual to breathe.” The children arrive at the store and marvel that someone could pay $1,000 for a toy sailboat or $35 for a clown, which gets Sylvia thinking:
Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could visit Grandaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talkin about in the first damn place.
Miss Moore provides the kind of education that happens when students confront real-world issues. When the curriculum, instead of sanitizing the past and excluding the present, holds a mirror to students’ lives so that the inequality and injustice students experience starts to breathe in the classroom, students wake up. Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington, looked for places of friction to expose the racism in our society to the public. This narrative assignment searches for those places in students’ lives where pain and rage seethe, so that they can be discussed instead of suppressed or denied.
Reading “The Lesson” and Finding Stories
I taught this narrative assignment in Darryl Miles’ class in Jefferson’s Young Men’s Academy, a group of freshmen boys, mostly African American, with one Latino, one Asian, and two white boys mixed in. Before students read the story, I told them about a few lessons I’ve learned over the years. And while I was trying to get to big ideas—the places of friction—I started off weak. Plus, I was a white woman, a guest teacher who visits their class. In my initial list, I clumsily attempted to demonstrate that we constantly learn lessons that we file away without even realizing it, but every lesson we learn started with an experience that we could tell a story about: “I learned not to touch hot stoves, not to brake too hard going down steep hills on my bike, and I learned to stay away from my father when he was drinking. Take a few minutes to think about lessons you have learned over the years and make a quick list.”