In "The Lesson," how does Sylvia change as a result of Miss Moore's lesson?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[It is important to note that this story was published in 1972. Although the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, the Department of Labor did not begin enforcing the quota system of hiring minorities until the seventies. Opportunities were extremely limited for African Americans at the time of the writing of this story.]

As a result of the lesson presented to her by Miss Moore, Sylvia is no longer complacent with her life. 

Miss Moore takes the children of the neighborhood on a trip to demonstrate how an unjust economic and social system creates unfair access to money and resources for other races, while black Americans have few opportunities. However, Sylvia seems disinterested. 

So we heading down the street and she’s boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country. 

When they arrive in Manhattan, the children are conducted into a socioeconomic area where an elite class can purchase non-necessities at what seems to the children to be unreal prices. The prices on the merchandise are sometimes higher than their household's yearly income. Sylvia and the others are initially incredulous and cannot comprehend the inequities in a country that has two such different places in New York. The children do not seem to fully comprehend that there are people who can buy such things. Nevertheless, the store makes an impression upon the children. For some, however, this feeling is so surreal that they dismiss it.

Later, when Miss Moore asks the children what they have come away with from this trip, some respond in a manner that greatly disappoints their chaperone. "White folk's crazy," one says; another says that he would like to return there when he gets his birthday money. However, Sylvia's friend Sugar impresses Miss Moore after the woman suggests to the children,

“Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?”

“I think,” says Sugar. . . “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 smiles when she hears Sugar's response; then, she looks at Sylvia, but Sylvia refuses to say anything; Miss Moore is disappointed. However, when they arrive in Harlem, having forgotten about their trip, Sugar suggests that they spend the money they have left and offers to race Sylvia to the drugstore, shouting at Sylvia to try to catch her. Sylvia lets her go.  She wants to ponder what occurred today, so she says that Sylvia can run and win if she wants to. 

"But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nothin'," Sylvia says to herself. She realizes that she has a larger race to run because she wants to figure out how to better her life and have the opportunities that others have.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Self-realization is one way Sylvia changes in "The Lesson."

At the start of the story, Sylvia sees herself as part of something larger. This can be seen in her tone in the opening paragraph: she speaks in collective terms.  For example, Sylvia speaks about how she and Sugar view the world in the same way: "...me and Sugar were the only ones just right." It can also be seen in how they view Miss Moore: "And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos..." In both settings, Sylvia views the world in a collectivized notion of the good. She sees reality in a "We" type of way.

By the end of the story, Sylvia changes to a more self- interested point of view. The last words of the story reflect individualist language that Sylvia did not initially demonstrate:  "But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin."  When Sylvia breaks away from Sugar to "think about the day," it is clear that she has become more individualistic. She is not as collective in her language and demeanor.  

The change in language and approach is reflective of Sylvia's self-realization. She has become more aware of the world and her place in it. In some respects, Sylvia has emerged from a cave and into a new world.  It is a world where questions abound. For example, she is not clear as to why she is angry at what she experienced. She has to "think" about what happened, away from other people. The epiphany that  emerges  at the end of the story is vague, but also reflective of a core value. These are examples of the self-realization that Sylvia has experienced.  They go to show how she has changed as a result of Miss Moore's lesson.