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

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The students learn about racial and economic inequality in "The Lesson" when Miss Moore takes them to an expensive toy store. The children realize that toys for richer kids represent a whole month or year of salary for their parents. Miss Moore hopes that the students will be motivated to lift themselves from poverty because of seeing what richer people can buy and experience.

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Miss Moore takes Sylvia and her friends to FAO Schwartz, a famously extravagant toy store. She wants the children to see the kinds of things that privileged people can afford to do with their money. Most of the kids have parents who struggle to pay rent, pay bills, and put food on the table. The kids see a $300 microscope through the window and say that they'd outgrow it before they could save enough allowance to purchase it. Miss Moore tells them that "you never outgrow learning instruments."

One girls points out a $480 glass paperweight. Another boy draws attention to a $1195 fiberglass sailboat. Sylvia, the narrator, says, "For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what." Sylvia cannot understand why she feels afraid to go inside; after all, it's "just a toy store," she says, "But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody."

When Sylvia and Sugar get closer to the boat, Sylvia realizes that she's "jealous" and has a strong desire to "punch somebody in the mouth." Miss Moore asks her why she sounds angry, and Sylvia can only think about the people who can afford thousand-dollar sailboats:

What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?

Sugar realizes that their society really isn't much of a democracy because not everyone has an equal chance to pursue happiness or "an equal crack at the dough."

The kids learn, I think, that society is unfair. There are so many challenges they will face as a result of their skin color: a lack of economic and social privilege, racism and prejudice, and a lack of education or fewer opportunities to get one. The kids learn to recognize racial disparity and to get angry about it. Perhaps their anger will spur them on to activism, prevent their becoming complacent, and even lead to social change.

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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. 

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What are the important points made in “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara?

Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” raises important points about social inequality and individual qualities that can help overcome it. The story shows how children gain awareness of social inequality, but not always in the ways that adults intend to each them. Miss Moore believes that she bonds with the children on the basis of race. By taking them to a fancy toy store in a rich neighborhood of New York, she aims to teach the children about the inherent unfairness of the American social and economic system. She encourages them to think critically about the vast disparities between rich and poor.

Sylvia, however, understands that Miss Moore is not like them, even though she is also Black, because she is a well-to-do, highly educated outsider. Sylvia complains about “the nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree.” When Miss Moore explains to the children that they are poor, Sylvia does not accept her evaluation:

And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature.

Sylvia understands that Miss Moore is trying to increase their awareness of inequality and injustice. She mentions Miss Moore asking them what they think of a “society…in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family.” She knows that the answer Sugar provides is what Miss Moore wants to hear:

[T]his is not much of a democracy if you ask me.

Sylvia condemns her friend for being manipulated. The day’s events not only cause her to think more about inequality, but cause a break in their friendship as she vows to excel on her own terms:

She [Sugar] can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

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