What do the students learn in "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miss Moore has the right idea.  Demonstrate that life can be different through experiences in other lifestyles.  Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is narrated by Sylvia, a bitter and cynical young girl. Sylvia talks about the other kids in the group with disdain basing her nicknames on how they act or look. 

The neighborhood parent group wants Miss Moore to show their students ways to lift themselves out of poverty and experience life outside of the projects. To Sylvia, Miss Moore’s lessons are a waste of time.  Today’s lesson is to visit the FAO Schwartz Toy Store.

Using their math skills to figure out prices and taxi fares, Sylvia still thinks she would rather be somewhere else. Miss Moore obviously values and is aware of Sylvia’s maturity because she places her in charge of the second cab.

What will be learned from going to a fancy toy store in downtown Manhattan? Some of the students quickly pick up on the uselessness of some of the items for sale.  $1,000 for a sail boat…a useless $480 paper weight—these items could feed a family of seven or eight for a while.  Is this what the rich people do with their money?

The students run the gamut from having no desk at home, to never receiving any homework, to just not having a home.  It is important to Miss Moore to show the children two things: life does not have to be as hard as it is for their parents and education is the key. Surprisingly, Sylvia actually understands Miss Moore’s point in the lesson.

All of the children feel out of place in the story. As she enters the store, Sylvia feels an overwhelming sense of shame. She also sees the things that are beyond her reach. One toy sticks out in her mind: a clown that did tricks that cost $35. She could never ask her mother for something so useless. That much money could buy beds for the boys. It could help pay the rent.

Angrily, Sylvia ask the question:

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.

Miss Moore’s real message is that it does not have to be this way for them.  Study hard, have ambition, and get out of the projects.  All of them can do this if that is what they want. 

Sylvia’s friend seems to understand the lesson:

“I think,” say Sugar pushing me off her feet like she never done before, cause I whip her ass in a minute, “that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” Miss Moore is besides herself…

Sugar understands and brings up a relevant point about the true lack of equality in a democracy.

Sylvia does not join in on the fun after the return to home.  Something goes through to her today.  She wants to go off and think things over about what she learned in the lesson today. 

Read the study guide:
The Lesson

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