In “The Lesson,” Miss Moore has moved into the narrator’s—Sylvia’s—neighborhood recently. Miss Moore is unlike the other African Americans in the neighborhood. She wears her hair in its natural curls, she speaks proper English, she goes by her last name, she has attended college, and she wants to teach the neighborhood children about the world around them.
One day Miss Moore takes the children on a field trip. She starts off by talking about how much things cost, what the children’s parents earn, and the unequal division of wealth in the United States. She makes Sylvia angry when she says that they are poor and live in the slums. Miss Moore hails two cabs, and she gives Sylvia five dollars to pay their driver. Sylvia suggests that they jump out of the cab and go get barbecue, but no one, including Sylvia’s friend and cohort Sugar, agrees. When they get to their destination, Sylvia keeps the four dollars change.
Their destination is the famous Fifth Avenue toy store, F. A. O. Schwarz. Before the group enters, they look in the store windows. They see very expensive toys—a microscope that costs $300, a paperweight that costs $480, and a sailboat that costs $1,195. While they look at these items, they talk about what they see. Miss Moore explains what a paperweight is for. Most of the children don’t see the need for it—only Mercedes has a desk at home. It is the sailboat that surprises them the most, however. Even Sylvia speaks: “Unbelievable,” she says. The children discuss the sailboat in the window and the sailboats that they make from kits. Sylvia wonders what a real boat costs, but Miss Moore won’t tell her; she says that Sylvia should check it out and report back to the group later.
The group then goes into the store. Sylvia hangs back, feeling funny and a bit ashamed, though she doesn’t know why. The children walk quietly through the store, hardly touching anything at all. Sugar reaches out to touch the sailboat, and Sylvia feels jealous and angry; she feels like punching someone. She asks Miss Moore why she brought them here, and Miss Moore asks if she is mad about something.
They take the subway home. On the train, Sylvia thinks about a clown that she saw that cost $35. In her world, $35 buys a lot: bunk beds, a visit to Grandpa for the entire family, the rent, and the piano bill. She wonders who are the people who have so much money to spend on toys. She wonders why they have so much money, and she and her family and friends have none. She thinks how Miss Moore says that poor people don’t have to remain poor, that they need to rebel against the status quo. Sylvia thinks that Miss Moore isn’t so smart after all, because she won’t get back her change from the taxi. Sylvia is unhappy with Miss Moore for unsettling her day with such thoughts.
Back in the building, Miss Moore asks what the children thought of the toy store. One of the children says that white people are crazy, and another girl says that she wants to go there when she gets her birthday money. Sugar surprises Sylvia by speaking up. She notes that the sailboat costs more than the cost of feeding all the children in a year. Miss Moore gets excited by what Sugar says and encourages her to continue. Sugar does, despite Sylvia stepping on her feet to quiet her. Sugar says that she doesn’t think the country is much of a democracy if people do not have equal opportunity to wealth. Miss Moore is pleased with Sugar’s answer, but Sylvia is disgusted by her treachery. She stands on Sugar’s foot again, and this time Sugar is quiet. Miss Moore looks at Sylvia and asks if she learned anything, but Sylvia walks away. Sugar follows. Sylvia mentions the money they have, but Sylvia doesn’t really answer. Sylvia suggests going to Hascombs and getting junk food, and then she suggests that they race. Sylvia lets Sugar run out ahead of her. Sylvia plans on going off to be alone to think about the day.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Toni Cade Bambara, Published by Gale Group, 2001.