What is the plot and theme?
In Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson," we have the chance to watch an awakening take place in the mind of a young black girl who lives in poverty, but has no sense that there is any other way to live.
Miss Moore is an educated woman who tries with very little success to open the eyes of black children in her neighborhood so that they might imagine, and perhaps achieve, success beyond what their parents can provide for them. Though they think Miss Moore is a stupid old thing, the woman is far from that.
Miss Moore considers it her job to teach these children even over the summer when they are thinking about swimming pools or cool movie theaters. And the kids are not respectful, appreciate or even interested, though she is trying to give them something extremely valuable: knowledge and awareness.
One afternoon, Miss Moore takes the children to FAO Schwartz, a very expensive toy store in New York City. First they window shop and see how expensive things are. They are stunned with disbelief. For Sylvia (the narrator) and Sugar, entering the store is a daunting step, though Sylvia knows there is little in life able to give her pause.
After they leave, they all discuss the sailboat they saw which cost almost eleven hundred dollars. As Miss Moore has hoped, the concept of such an expensive toy greatly puzzles the kids, but they don't quite understand where Miss Moore is trying to lead them.
Finally Sugar suggests that the democracy all Americans have been promised doesn't seem to apply to everyone, when some can buy a thousand-dollar sailboat, and their families could use that kind of money just to survive.
Miss Moore obviously thinks that Sylvia is bright enough to grasp the lesson here, but Sylvia is an angry kid--angry at just about everything. We get the sense that she probably does know what Miss Moore is getting at, but she's just ornery enough to pretend that she doesn't.
The story ends as Sugar and Sylvia go their own way. Sugar runs on ahead, which may symbolically mean that she has seen the truth, but is already moving beyond it as she hasn't really internalized it. Sylvia is happy to move more slowly, but uses the time to think over what has happened during the day. In her head, she insists that NO ONE is going to beat her at anything. Perhaps this indicates that even though she is angry and ornery, she is not unaware of the significance of this new information—from the lesson Miss Moore has shared. In fact, it may well be a seed Miss Moore has planted that will grow over time and bear the fruit desire in Sylvia to be more than just a kid from the poor part of town.
In terms of the theme, I think Bambara is providing a lesson to every reader. Where we are today is not where we must be tomorrow; and who we are growing up is not who we must be when we leave childhood behind. Knowing is an important first step. Listening to those with true knowledge is the next essential step in achieving our own success—even if we believe that the person speaking is boring. Those of us with many comforts when we're growing up probably don't ask ourselves where it comes from any more than those who live with less ask...at first. If we are lucky, someone opens our eyes and gives us a chance to choose to do something important with who we are, regardless of the background we come from: whether we are touched by poverty, divorce, abuse, or tragedy. It can define who we are, or WE can define who we will be.