Narrated in the voice of Sylvia, a preadolescent black girl, "The Lesson" is her version of a summer day trip organized by Miss Moore, a socially conscious spinster who is determined to teach eight children a lesson about the nature of money and how it is distributed in American society. In order to expose the children to the notion of class differences, Miss Moore, the self-appointed teacher, takes them from the "slums" in New York City to the upscale retail area on Fifth Avenue where they visit F.A.O. Schwarz, a world-famous toy store. Although the lesson Miss Moore attempts to teach is quite serious, the story is infused with sassy humor provided by the various children's honest and irreverent voices.
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...