Examine the central idea of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.

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herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In Bambara's "The Lesson", an African American teacher who works with poverty-stricken students decides to take them to the rich side of the city to visit the famous toys store F.A.O. Schwartz: one of the icons of capitalism and indulgence in our society. This, she does with the aim of showing her students something different than what they are used to seeing in the environment that they are used to existing: the projects.

When the students get to the store, they are in shock to see that the price of one toy could easily feed a family of 6 or 7 in their neighborhood. The children conclude that "white people are crazy" for spending so much money on things that the children do not even know what they are for. In all, the kids learn both about the price and value of everything in there.

This being said, the central idea of the story can be somewhat summarized in the phrase said by Sugar:

This is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough

While Sugar's statement is debatable depending on your own view of society and the way that the economy is managed in this country, the fact remains that Ms. Moore wants the children to understand that, "technically", that is the exact nature of our country. We do have the potential to all "get an equal crack at the dough". The problem is that unless children who come from poverty make the decision to stand against the odds and succeed, that "equal crack" will not occur by itself. We could conclude that Ms. Moore wanted the children to become inspired to do better for themselves; maybe by eliciting a bit of personal jealousy and a dash of ambition the kids would feel the want to break through and get to be one of the likes who frequent F.A.O. Schwartz.

Ms. Moore seems deflated by Sugar's statement because, in her eyes, she sees the kids reverting back to their known ways, mainly just "hoping" that they could one day get to "crack the dough", rather than actively plan to get it. However, the ending of the story is neutral enough to let the reader suppose that the children are merely having their first reaction to this place; that, somewhere in the back of their minds, they are actually feeling the want for something much bigger and better to take place in their lives.

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akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The central idea in Bambara's story is the examination of wealth and poverty in American society.  In taking the kids to the toy store, Miss Moore wants the children to critically think about money and the implications it carries in society.  Miss Moore knows that her students come from poor families.  In order for such a condition to be changed, Miss Moore wants the kids to understand the excesses of wealth in society, and specifically how some people have too much (cost of the toy sailboat) and others have so very little.  The fact that Sylvia is disgruntled by the thoughts generated in her mind by the excursion demonstrates the field trip's success. 

Miss Moore's lesson to the children is not to feel bad about themselves, as much as it is for them to raise questions and critical concerns about social values, the emphasis on wealth, and the disparity of economic experiences in a liberal democracy.  When Sugar speaks out to this, Miss Moore feels the lesson worked and Bambara's points are evident.  It is in the implications of wealth in modern society where the central idea of the story resides.

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