4/21/22, 7:29 PM Bambara’s “The Lesson”
The LessonToni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only onesjust right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturallywe laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary. And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winoswho cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’thalfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask. Miss Moore was her name. The only woman on theblock with no first name. And she was black as hell, cept for her feet, which were fish-white and spooky. Andshe was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do, us being my cousin, mostly, who lived on the blockcause we all moved North the same time and to the same apartment then spread out gradual to breathe. And ourparents would yank our heads into some kinda shape and crisp up our clothes so we’d be presentable for travelwith Miss Moore, who always looked like she was going to church though she never did. Which is just one ofthe things the grownups talked about when they talked behind her back like a dog. But when she came callingwith some sachet she’d sewed up or some gingerbread she’d made or some book, why then they’d all be tooembarrassed to turn her down and we’d get handed over all spruced up. She’d been to college and said it wasonly right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education, and she not even related by marriageor blood. So they’d go for it. Specially Aunt Gretchen. She was the main gofer in the family. You got some oledumb shit foolishness you want somebody to go for, you send for Aunt Gretchen. She been screwed into the go-along for so long, it’s a blood-deep natural thing with her. Which is how she got saddled with me and Sugar andJunior in the first place while our mothers were in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time.
So this one day Miss Moore rounds us all up at the mailbox and it’s puredee hot and she’s knockin herself outabout arithmetic. And school suppose to let up in summer I heard, but she don’t never let up. And the starch inmy pinafore scratching the shit outta me and I’m really hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn collegedegree. I’d much rather go to the pool or to the show where it’s cool. So me and Sugar leaning on the mailboxbeing surly, which is a Miss Moore word. And Flyboy checking out what everybody brought for lunch. And FatButt already wasting his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich like the pig he is. And Junebug punchin on Q.T.’s armfor potato chips. And Rosie Giraffe shifting from one hip to the other waiting for somebody to step on her footor ask her if she from Georgia so she can kick ass, preferably Mercedes’. And Miss Moore asking us do we knowwhat money is like we a bunch of retards. I mean real money, she say, like it’s only poker chips or monopolypapers we lay on the grocer. So right away I’m tired of this and say so. And would much rather snatch Sugar andgo to the Sunset and terrorize the West Indian kids and take their hair ribbons and their money too. And MissMoore files that remark away for next week’s lesson on brotherhood, I can tell. And finally I say we oughta getto the subway cause it’s cooler an’ besides we might meet some cute boys. Sugar done swiped her mama’slipstick, so we ready.
So we heading down the street and she’s boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make andhow much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part aboutwe all poor and live in the slums which I don’t feature. And I’m ready to speak on that, but she steps out in thestreet and hails two cabs just like that. Then she hustles half the crew in with her and hands me a five-dollar billand tells me to calculate 10 percent tip for the driver. And we’re off. Me and Sugar and Junebug and Flyboyhangin out the window and hollering to everybody, putting lipstick on each other cause Flyboy a faggot anyway,and making farts with our sweaty armpits. But I’m mostly trying to figure how to spend this money. But they arefascinated with the meter ticking and Junebug starts laying bets as to how much it’ll read when Flyboy can’t holdhis breath no more. Then Sugar lays bets as to how much it’ll be when we get there. So I’m stuck. Don’t nobodywant to go for my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find. Thenthe driver tells us to get the hell out cause we there already. And the meter reads eighty-five cents. And I’mstalling to figure out the tip and Sugar say give him a dime. And I decide he don’t need it bad as I do, so later forhim. But then he tries to take off with Junebug foot still in the door so we talk about his mama something
4/21/22, 7:29 PM Bambara’s “The Lesson”
ferocious. Then we check out that we on Fifth Avenue and everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a furcoat, hot as it is. White folks crazy.
“This is the place, ” Miss Moore say, presenting it to us in the voice she uses at the museum. “Let’s look in thewindows before we go in.”
“Can we steal?” Sugar asks very serious like she’s getting the ground rules squared away before she plays. “I begyour pardon,” say Miss Moore, and we fall out. So she leads us around the windows of the toy store and me andSugar screamin, “This is mine, that’s mine, I gotta have that, that was made for me, I was born for that,” till BigButt drowns us out.
“Hey, I’m goin to buy that there.”
“That there? You don’t even know what it is, stupid.”
“I do so,” he say punchin on Rosie Giraffe. “It’s a microscope.”
“Whatcha gonna do with a microscope, fool?”
“Look at things.”
“Like what, Ronald?” ask Miss Moore. And Big Butt ain’t got the first notion. So here go Miss Moore gabbingabout the thousands of bacteria in a drop of water and the somethinorother in a speck of blood and the millionand one living things in the air around us is invisible to the naked eye. And what she say that for? Junebug go totown on that “naked” and we rolling. Then Miss Moore ask what it cost. So we all jam into the window smudginit up and the price tag say $300. So then she ask how long’d take for Big Butt and Junebug to save up theirallowances. “Too long,” I say. “Yeh,” adds Sugar, “outgrown it by that time.” And Miss Moore say no, you neveroutgrow learning instruments. “Why, even medical students and interns and,” blah, blah, blah. And we ready tochoke Big Butt for bringing it up in the first damn place.
“This here costs four hundred eighty dollars,” say Rosie Giraffe. So we pile up all over her to see what shepointin out. My eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks drippedinto the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something. But for $480 it don’t make sense.
“That’s a paperweight made of semi-precious stones fused together under tremendous pressure,” she explainsslowly, with her hands doing the mining and all the factory work.
“So what’s a paperweight?” asks Rosie Giraffe.
“To weigh paper with, dumbbell,” say Flyboy, the wise man from the East.
“Not exactly,” say Miss Moore, which is what she say when you warm or way off too. “It’s to weigh paper downso it won’t scatter and make your desk untidy. ” So right away me and Sugar curtsy to each other and then toMercedes who is more the tidy type.
“We don’t keep paper on top of the desk in my class,” say Junebug, figuring Miss Moore crazy or lyin one.
“At home, then,” she say. “Don’t you have a calendar and a pencil case and a blotter and a letter-opener on yourdesk at home where you do your homework?” And she know damn well what our homes look like cause shenosys around in them every chance she gets.
“I don’t even have a desk,” say Junebug. “Do we?”
“No. And I don’t get no homework neither,” says Big Butt.
4/21/22, 7:29 PM Bambara’s “The Lesson”
“And I don’t even have a home,” say Flyboy like he do at school to keep the white folks off his back and sorryfor him. Send this poor kid to camp posters, is his specialty.
“I do,” says Mercedes. “I have a box of stationery on my desk and a picture of my cat. My godmother bought thestationery and the desk. There’s a big rose on each sheet and the envelopes smell like roses.”
“Who wants to know about your smelly-ass stationery,” say Rosie Giraffe fore I can get my two cents in.
“It’s important to have a work area all your own so that . . .”
“Will you look at this sailboat, please,” say Flyboy, cuttin her off and pointin to the thing like it was his. So onceagain we tumble all over each other to gaze at this magnificent thing in the toy store which is just big enough tomaybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the posts tight. We all start reciting the price tag likewe in assembly. “Hand-crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars.”
“Unbelievable,” I hear myself say and am really stunned. I read it again for myself just in case the grouprecitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and shelookin at us, waiting for I dunno what.
“Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball ofstring for eight cents? It must have a motor and a whole lot else besides,” I say. “My sailboat cost me about fiftycents.”
“But will it take water?” say Mercedes with her smart ass.
“Took mine to Alley Pond Park once,” say Flyboy. “String broke. Lost it. Pity.”
“Sailed mine in Gentral Park and it keeled over and sank. Had to ask my father for another dollar.”
“And you got the strap,” laugh Big Butt. “The jerk didn’t even have a string on it. My old man wailed on hisbehind.”
Little Q.T. was staring hard at the sailboat and you could see he wanted it bad. But he too little and somebody’djust take it from him. So what the hell. “This boat for kids, Miss Moore?”
“Parents silly to buy something like that just to get all broke up,” say Rosie Giraffe.
“That much money it should last forever,” I figure.
“My father’d buy it for me if I wanted it.”
“Your father, my ass,” say Rosie Giraffe getting a chance to finally push Mercedes.
“Must be rich people shop here,” say Q.T.
“You are a very bright boy,” say Flyboy. “What was your first clue?” And he rap him on the head with the backof his knuckles, since Q.T. the only one he could get away with. Though Q.T. liable to come up behind you yearslater and get his licks in when you half expect it.
“What I want to know is,” I says to Miss Moore though I never talk to her, I wouldn’t give the bitch thatsatisfaction, “is how much a real boat costs? I figure a thousand’d get you a yacht any day.”
“Why don’t you check that out,” she says, “and report back to the group?” Which really pains my ass. If yougonna mess up a perfectly good swim day least you could do is have some answers. “Let’s go in,” she say likeshe got something up her sleeve. Only she don’t lead the way. So me and Sugar turn the corner to where theentrance is, but when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy
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store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. Butsomehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away from Sugar to lead. But she hangs back too. And Ilook at her and she looks at me and this is ridiculous. I mean, damn, I have never ever been shy about doingnothing or going nowhere. But then Mercedes steps up and then Rosie Giraffe and Big Butt crowd in behind andshove, and next thing we all stuffed into the doorway with only Mercedes squeezing past us, smoothing out herjumper and walking right down the aisle. Then the rest of us tumble in like a glued-together jigsaw done allwrong. And people lookin at us. And it’s like the time me and Sugar crashed into the Catholic church on a dare.But once we got in there and everything so hushed and holy and the candles and the bowin and thehandkerchiefs on all the drooping heads, I just couldn’t go through with the plan. Which was for me to run up tothe altar and do a tap dance while Sugar played the nose flute and messed around in the holy water. And Sugarkept givin me the elbow. Then later teased me so bad I tied her up in the shower and turned it on and locked herin. And she’d be there till this day if Aunt Gretchen hadn’t finally figured I was lyin about the boarder takin ashower.
Same thing in the store. We all walkin on tiptoe and hardly touchin the games and puzzles and things. And Iwatched Miss Moore who is steady watchin us like she waitin for a sign. Like Mama Drewery watches the skyand sniffs the air and takes note of just how much slant is in the bird formation. Then me and Sugar bump smackinto each other, so busy gazing at the toys, ‘specially the sailboat. But we don’t laugh and go into our fat-ladybump-stomach routine. We just stare at that price tag. Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I’mjealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth.
“Watcha bring us here for, Miss Moore?”
“You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?” Givin me one of them grins like she tellin a grown-up joke that never turns out to be funny. And she’s lookin very closely at me like maybe she plannin to do myportrait from memory. I’m mad, but I won’t give her that satisfaction. So I slouch around the store bein verybored and say, “Let’s go.”
Me and Sugar at the back of the train watchin the tracks whizzin by large then small then gettin gobbled up inthe dark. I’m thinkin about this tricky toy I saw in the store. A clown that somersaults on a bar then does chin-ups just cause you yank lightly at his leg. Cost $35. I could see me askin my mother for a $35 birthday clown.”You wanna who that costs what?” she’d say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in myhead. Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and thewhole household could go visit Grand-daddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rentand the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toysailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who weare, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits forsomebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don’t none of us knowwhat kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place. But she ain’t so smart cause I still got her four dollarsfrom the taxi and she sure ain’t gettin it Messin up my day with this shit. Sugar nudges me in my pocket andwinks.
Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headachefor thinkin so hard. And we lean all over each other so we can hold up under the draggy ass lecture she alwaysfinishes us off with at the end before we thank her for borin us to tears. But she just looks at us like she readintea leaves. Finally she say, “Well, what did you think of F.A.0. Schwarz?”
Rosie Giraffe mumbles, “White folks crazy.”
“I’d like to go there again when I get my birthday money,” says Mercedes, and we shove her out the pack so shehas to lean on the mailbox by herself.
“I’d like a shower. Tiring day,” say Flyboy.
4/21/22, 7:29 PM Bambara’s “The Lesson”
Then Sugar surprises me by sayin, “You know, Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a yearwhat that sailboat costs.” And Miss Moore lights up like somebody goosed her. “And?” she say, urging Sugar on.Only I’m standin on her foot so she don’t continue.
“Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost tofeed a family of six or seven. What do you think?”
“I think,” say Sugar pushing me off her feet like she never done before cause I whip her ass in a minute, “thatthis is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at thedough, don’t it?” Miss Moore is besides herself and I am disgusted with Sugar’s treachery. So I stand on her footone more time to see if she’ll shove me. She shuts up, and Miss Moore looks at me, sorrowfully I’m thinkin. Andsomethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest. “Anybody else learn anything today?” lookin dead at me. Iwalk away and Sugar has to run to catch up and don’t even seem to notice when I shrug her arm off my shoulder.
“Well, we got four dollars anyway,” she says. “Uh hun.”
“We could go to Hascombs and get half a chocolate layer and then go to the Sunset and still have plenty moneyfor potato chips and ice cream sodas.”
“Race you to Hascombs,” she say.
We start down the block and she gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I’m going to the West End and then overto the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonnabeat me at nuthin. –1972