In Toni Cade Bambara's short story "The Lesson," the reader is introduced to the narrator, Sylvia, who has a standing (though quiet) feud with Miss Moore. Miss Moore has moved into the neighborhood and the kids don't appreciate her—the same way they don't appreciate anyone who they think handles him- or herself with distinction:
...the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary.
They also don't like anyone one who interferes with their ability to play:
...the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs...
Miss Moore is aggravating because she is always planning activities for the kids that Sylvia finds boring and a waste of time.
From the reader's standpoint, it seems that Miss Moore is attempting to present the world to these inner-city children, teaching them how they could change the economic level to which they were born, as opposed to staying forever where their parents have raised them. Having graduated from college, Miss Moore is apparently trying to give back by providing these young people with life-truths that might motivate them to choose paths of hope (rising above how they live), rather than those of apathy and ease (clinging to what they have always known). Miss Moore tries to explain:
...she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature.
In Sylvia's youthfulness, she cannot see the realities of the world in which she lives.
On this particular day, Miss Moore takes the kids to a fancy and expensive toy store. There the kids learn about things they never knew existed. For instance, they see a paperweight for $480. Miss Moore explains that the glass object rests on papers to keep them from blowing away. Few of the kids present have papers or desks. Some of them think Miss Moore is "crazy or lyin one."
The youngsters also see toys that are ridiculously expensive, such as the sailboat that costs $1,195.
Sylvia is noticeably taken aback:
"Unbelievable," I hear myself say and am really stunned...For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what.
They move around the store for some time; the kids are "walkin on tiptoe," afraid to touch anything. This is not a place where they belong.
"Watcha bring us here for, Miss Moore?"
"You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?" ...And she's lookin very closely at me...I'm mad, but I won't give her the satisfaction.
On the train ride home, Sylvia's mind is busy and agitated. She cannot imagine going home and asking her mother even for a small toy from such a place. She'd look at Sylvia as if she were crazy. A thirty-five dollar price tag, for example, represents something of a fortune to Sylvia and her family: with it they could pay the bills for the rent and for the piano, or buy bunk beds. Sylvia wonders about the people that can afford such things.
The climax is...
...the moment in a play, novel, short story, or narrative poem at which the crisis comes to its point of greatest intensity...
This is the story's climax:
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. But it don't necessarily have to be that way...then [Miss Moore] waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie...
Sylvia and Sugar run off to spend the money left over from the cab fare. While Sugar runs wildly ahead, Sylvia hangs back. She wants to go somewhere where she can think over what she has seen on their trip. One thing she knows for certain:
But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.
The "lesson" has not been wasted on Sylvia.
Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson" is written using a first person narration. Sylvia, the narrator, tells the story of Miss Moore (a new woman in her neighborhood). Given that Miss Moore does everything very differently than the other adults in the neighborhood (wears her hair natural and does not go to church), she is intriguing to the children of the community.
One day Miss Moore decides to teach the children of the community a lesson on being African American and poor. She takes the children to F.A.O. Schwarz so that they can see the world from a different perspective.
The climax comes when Sylvia finally comes to accept the real issues which exist. Although she is initially angry at her friend Sugar for taking part in the "lesson" and questioning society, her realization of the inequality which takes place in the world. It is Sylvia's acceptance which turns the story around as she beings to question her own place and status. This also shows the relevance of Miss Moore's name. The children were taught a lesson to want more.