Who is Miss Moore and why does she take an interest in the neighborhood children?
In Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson," Miss Moore is a self-appointed advocate to a group of inner-city children in an effort to open their minds to the world and their potential in that world, that may not at first seem as if it has a place for them.
The story starts out with Sylvia explaining that "once upon a time," she was growing up when something was wrong with everyone else but she and Sugar were the "only ones just right." Then...
...this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.
The children foolishly laughed at her as they laughed at everyone, thinking they had all the answers and no one could teach them anything they didn't already know. How sure they were of themselves! Sylvia recalled that they hated her: Miss Moore, who was the only woman in the neighborhood that had only a "Miss" and a "Moore," but no first name.
And she was black as hell, cept for her feet, which were
fish-white and spooky.
If that wasn't enough, Sylvia thought, Miss Moore was always coming up with crazy ideas of things she could do with the kids. She was always dressed up. The parents talked about her behind her back, but then she showed up with some kind of gift, and the children were turned over—the parents too embarrassed for the way they had spoken about her to say no. What the kids don't realize is that there are secrets of the world about which they know nothing. When they complain that "she don't never let up," it's true: for she knows how hard life is, and what the kids need to do in order to be ready for life challenges, as adults, some day. The reader can sense that Miss Moore believes that this will make all the difference.
After their visit to the expensive F.A.O. Schwarz toy store, a seed is planted in Sylvia's mind. She is too stubborn to let on, or let Sugar "let on" either.
Then Sugar surprises me by sayin, "You know, Miss Moore, I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs." And Miss Moore lights up like somebody goosed her.
Miss Moore looks for signs of "intelligent life" beneath Sylvia's stubborn and unfriendly exterior. Though Miss Moore may suspect she has reached Sylvia this day, Sylvia will not give her the satisfaction of letting on. Miss Moore has gotten an intelligent response from Sugar, and Sylvia is not very happy for it. However, the lesson is wasted on Sugar who forgets it in favor of buying some sweets, but Sylvia does not. Like a treasure, she keeps it to herself, promising to take it out and study it later.
Miss Moore is attempting to mentor the children in her neighborhood, and while the children give a limited amount of satisfaction to her during their "lessons," the reader knows that her words will make a difference—even if she only reaches one child. By the end of the story, the reader may be thinking that Sylvia is the one, regardless of her cantankerous nature. At the end, Sylvia and Sugar start to race, but Sylvia really isn't interested, preoccupied by Miss Moore's lesson today:
She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.