Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is one of her best known stories, and is a popular selection for students. It’s told by a first-person narrator, Sylvia, a young girl, and is set in New York City. It can be read in the Amazon preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story. (22% in)
Summary of “The Lesson”
The narrator, Sylvia, recounts a time from her youth when a woman, Miss Moore, moved into her neighborhood. She had nappy hair, was very dark, didn’t wear makeup, and didn’t use her first name. Miss Moore was college educated and took it upon herself to educate the local children, which always ended up including Sylvia and her cousin Sugar. She took the children on various boring outings. The kids didn’t like her, and the parents talked about her behind her back.
One day during summer vacation, Miss Moore rounds up a group of kids by their apartment mailboxes for one of her field trips. As they walk, she asks the kids what they know about money, talks about how much things cost, how much their parents make, and how money is unfairly distributed. She says the kids live in slums, which bothers Sylvia. Before she can make an issue of it, Miss Moore hails two taxis.
She divides their group of eight into the two cars, giving Sylvia five dollars to pay her driver’s fare plus a ten percent tip. Sylvia, Sugar, Junebug and Flyboy enjoy themselves on the ride, playing with the lipstick Sugar brought with her. Sylvia wants to bail out of the cab and go spend the money, but she doesn’t get any support. They reach their destination and the meter says eighty-five cents. She doesn’t tip the driver.
They’re on Fifth Avenue. People are dressed up—one lady is wearing a fur coat. Miss Moore says they’ll look in a toy store window before going inside. Sylvia and Sugar scream about wanting everything. A boy in the group, Big Butt, says he’s going to buy a microscope even though he’s not sure what you look at with them. This prompts Miss Moore to give some examples. She asks what it costs, which is $300.
Rosie points out something that costs $480. It’s a paperweight. Miss Moore explains its purpose, knowing it will alien to the kids, as they don’t have writing desks at home. Mercedes says she has a desk with her own stationery, gifts from her godmother. Rosie shuts her down.
Flyboy points out a fiberglass sailboat that costs almost $1,200. Sylvia is stunned by the price. They look at Miss Moore who stays silent. The kids talk about their boats, which cost fifty cents. Q. T. states the obvious, that rich people must shop here.
Sylvia figured a real yacht must cost $1,000. Miss Moore tells her to research it and report back to the group. The kids go inside slowly, feeling a bit of shame. The atmosphere of the store reminds Sylvia of when she and Sugar went into a church for some mischief. They couldn’t go through with their plan.
They all walk through the store carefully. Miss Moore watches the kid’s reactions. When Sugar touches the sailboat, Sylvia feels an undirected anger. She asks Miss Moore why she brought them here. She smiles knowingly. Sylvia wants to leave.
On the train ride home, Sylvia thinks about a toy clown she saw for $35. She imagines how her mother would react if she asked for it. She thinks about all the things her family could spend $35 on. She wonders who these people are who can afford such things, what kind of work they do, and why people in her neighborhood aren’t in on it. Miss Moore has said that where people are is who they are. Then she would wait for someone to say poor people have to demand their piece of the pie. Sylvia feels superior because she still has the four dollars change from the taxi.
They get back to the mailboxes where they started. Sylvia has a headache from thinking. Miss Moore asks what everyone thought of the toy store. Rosie says white folks are crazy, Mercedes says she wants to go back with her birthday money, and Flyboy wants a shower because he’s tired. Sugar says their combined food cost in a year is probably less than the cost of that sailboat. Miss Moore urges her on, asking what that says about society. She says it’s not a democracy if people don’t have an equal chance to make money. Sylvia wants her to stop talking and stands on Sugar’s foot.
Miss Moore tries to get an opinion from Sylvia, but she walks away. Sugar catches up with her and suggests they buy snacks with the money. She runs on ahead to the store, which is fine with Sylvia. She thinks that no one is going to beat her at anything.
Theme: Wealthy Inequality
This is the most obvious contrast in the story, the one on which it’s built.
The children live in a poor neighborhood, possibly Harlem. They live in apartments with winos in the hallways and stairwells. Miss Moore bluntly calls them slums. She takes the kids to Fifth Avenue, which has some of the most expensive apartments in the country.
The first step above their financial level could be something as common for many as the taxi ride. Some of the kids “are fascinated with the meter ticking”, suggesting they might not have ever seen this before.
The first item in the window the kids see is a $300 microscope. The obvious inequality here is the fact that none of their parents could afford to buy it, while other parents could. Another level of inequality is educational. The kids don’t really know what a microscope is for. The cost of the microscope means it’s not a part of their world and, by extension, neither is the knowledge it represents.
Next is the $480 paperweight. This item also demonstrates inequality in both ways. They can’t afford it, but they also can’t understand what the point of it is. Only one of the kids, Mercedes, has a desk at home. This is a luxury in their homes, not a staple item, like in a rich home.
Last is the fiberglass sailboat. The wealth inequality here is the easiest for the kids to grasp because they have a direct comparison. This one costs $1,195; their toy sailboats cost 50 cents. This might be why Sylvia is stunned when she hears the price. This toy hits home more than the others. In her experience, a toy boat costs 50 cents, so she thought a real yacht would be $1,000. Finding out a toy can cost more than that makes her angry.
The clearest statements about wealth inequality come near the end in the exchange between Miss Moore and Sugar. Sugar says the group’s total food cost in a year is probably less than the cost of the sailboat. Miss Moore asks what kind of society has people who can afford to pay for a toy what would feed a family of six or seven. Sugar says it’s not a democracy if people don’t have an equal chance to make money.
This exchange sums up the main point of the story, and Miss Moore lights up at Sugar’s realization.
Miss Moore is trying to get the students to take action that will change society. This would require them to stand out and speak up, to be different. Miss Moore is a good example of this with her “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.” She also doesn’t use her first name and doesn’t go to church.
The first step is to make the kids aware that there’s something unfair they should be upset about. Miss Moore accomplishes this by highlighting wealth inequality, as we’ve already looked at above.
On the train ride back, Sylvia remembers one of Miss Moore’s refrains, “Where we are is who we are. . . But it don’t necessarily have to be that way.” The response she’s wants in return is “that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie.” She wants to get through to the kids that they don’t have to be limited by where they grow up. The “demand” indicates that they will have to do something about it. She’s trying to empower them enough to take the necessary steps.
This is going to take some doing, as Sylvia says “don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place.” This is why Miss Moore’s lessons are frequent and repetitive.
There’s evidence of a fledgling empowerment in Sugar as she interacts with Miss Moore. Sylvia tries to physically intimidate her into shutting up, but Sugar continues, “pushing [her] off her feet like she never done before.”
Another part of this is simply expanding the kid’s education. Miss Moore talks to them about arithmetic, for example, before they set out. Sylvia also tells us that Miss Moore has planned many such field trips, presumably with similar mind-expanding lessons.
What’s the significance of finding out the narrator’s name so late in the story?
We don’t find out the narrator’s name until after the children have walked through the toy store. Sugar has just run her finger over the expensive sailboat, which makes the narrator jealous. She asks Miss Moore why she brought them to the store. Miss Moore says, “You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?”
We don’t find out her name is Sylvia until after she has been affected by Miss Moore’s lesson. Remember, she was jokey and maintaining her distance from Miss Moore until she heard the price of the sailboat. That’s what got through to her and made her ask Miss Moore about the cost of a real boat. We’re told her name when the story circles back to the sailboat again.
Sylvia’s name is an important part of her identity; learning it at this point suggests that Miss Moore’s lesson is also now a part of her identity. She now understands the huge wealth disparity that exists in the world, and it has changed her. Whether she will fight for a larger cause is uncertain, but she will fight for herself, as she states at the end, “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.”