How does Sylvia change from the beginning of "The Lesson" to the end of the story?
At the beginning of "The Lesson," Sylvia would rather fool around than become educated, but the trip with Miss Moore opens her mind to the inequities in life.
Habituated to her environment, Sylvia thinks of it as normal since all her friends and those who live near her are in similar conditions. However, when she leaves Harlem and goes into the wealthy part of New York City in the taxi and visits a store with costly merchandise, she thinks about Miss Moore's words, "Where we are is who we are." Sylvia wonders what kind of work people do that they can live in such luxury and afford items that cost hundreds of dollars, even thousands. Sylvia wonders, "How come we ain't in on it?"
When the children see a toy sailboat that sells for $1195.00, Sylvia says angrily,
"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 of string for eight cents?"
She then asks Miss Moore how much a real boat costs. Miss Moore suggests that she look up the answer to this question. She wants the children to marvel at what she feels is an unjust economic system that denies resources and money to black Americans. Having pondered the disparity in this system, Sylvia's friend Sugar comments that this is "not much of a democracy" when some people can buy a toy for what other people require to feed a family of six. Miss Moore is pleased to hear Sugar's remark and asks if anyone else has learned anything. Sylvia does not comment, but she returns home feeling much different from how she was when she departed. She lets Sugar go ahead of her because she wants to "think this day through" after learning of the disparities in life.
Sylvia is a tough girl throughout the story. She truly understands the lesson, and this knowledge creates an epiphany in her. She learns the lesson of class inequality and unfairness in spite of herself.
In the beginning, Sylvia considers Ms. Moore an enemy. She exists to interfere with her summer days by providing free "lessons" to the neighborhood children. Sylvia says that when Ms. Moore came around...
And our parents would yank our heads into some kinda shape and crisp up our clothes so we'd be presentable for travel with Miss Moore, who always looked like she was going to church though she never did.
Sylvia resents having to dress up to go with a woman that she did not like. However, her resentment does not extend beyond having to miss a childhood day in the streets. By the end of the story, she learns much more about the effect of her own lifestyle. She is even more resentful that her friends are beginning to learn this lesson as well, as evidenced by her friend's statement:
"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?"
She learns that there is a difference between rich and poor and that this different, while not being fair, is very real. As a child, Sylvia does not want to recognize her diminishing ability to dictate her life. As an intelligent young woman, she has to.
Sylvia does show signs of change during the lesson that Miss Moore gives the children, but she is so tough that she refuses to admit it, even to herself. At the end of the story, she even shows anger toward her friend Sugar for prolonging the lesson by asking Miss Moore questions. However, as Sugar and Sylvia race home, Sylvia states that she is going home to think over the day. As she says, "ain't nobody gonna beat me at nothing."
This shows a deeper understanding of her identity as an African American and a person living in impoverished conditions than she showed at the beginning of the story. In the beginning, she mocked people like Miss Moore for being proud and, as far as she was concerned, above their station. In the first paragraph, for example, "she says that we laughed at her...the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president."
The catalyst for her change is when she sees the sailboat in the toy store window for over a thousand dollars. She finds it difficult to believe the price, because she thinks that kind of money could not only buy you a real sailboat, but could perhaps last forever. For the first time in her young life, Sylvia has a direction for her anger.