Toni Cade Bambara’s story “The Lesson“ employs a first person narration with Sylvia, as the narrator and protagonist. Sylvia is a 12 year old black girl, cynical, intelligent, and the obvious leader of the group of children. The story takes place in the 1970s with the main character growing up in Harlem. The lesson of the story is the value of education and the ability to change the course of a person’s life.
Miss Moore, the only educated person in the neighborhood and an admirable lady, has taken on the responsibility of exposing the local children to the world outside their community. The children are unappreciative, poor, and black. On this day, the lesson is to take the oppressed children to FAO Schwartz in Manhattan. She lets the children experience their first ride in a taxicab. The sarcastic Sylvia gives her opinion:
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. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums which I don't feature. And I'm ready to speak on that, but she steps out in the street and hails two cabs just like that.
The toy store displays toys that cost more than the entire incomes of the families of the children. Lost on the children, the lesson intended by Miss Moore is to show another aspect of life and to inspire them to want more in their future. Initially, the lesson aggravates the contemptuous children, but finally the point of the trip begins to hit home to some of the children, particularly Sylvia. Sugar steals money from Miss Moore from the cab ride. At the last minute, Sylvia decides to go off alone to contemplate the events of the day.
Miss Moore allows the children to evaluate for themselves the difference between the Fifth Avenue world and the one in which they live. The world of Manhattan is almost like being in another country. These informal lessons are given by Miss Moore at an age when the impression made upon them might generate a spark of desire to find out how they might achieve the same rewards that Manhattan has to offer.
The lesson uses effective imagery particularly in the toy store. The microscope represents the ability to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye. Miss Moore hopes the children will be able to see into their own lives, to understand their dearth of material things, and to see their own oppression.
The lesson of the paper weight comes from the item that is completely useless for the children since in their lives they have nothing worth holding down.
The overly expensive sailboat makes them aware of their poor economic future unless they utilize the opportunities available to them. Miss Moore says, “Where we are is who we are.” Then the children realize the point of the lesson.
On the way home, the group takes the subway, which brings up another point of comparison:
- the cab ride and the subway
- Manhattan and Harlem; the children’s lives now
- their potential
Sugar, one of the other children, expresses the fact that the price of one of the toys could feed a family of six or seven. She also has understood that not everyone has the same chance to be happy.