Why did Miss Moore take the students to F.A.O. Schwarz?
In “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, Ms. Moore teaches the summer students through experience rather than explicit teaching. Ms. Moore understands the inequalities of the world outside of her students’ Harlem neighborhood. They lack the role models for, and the ability to see, the opportunities that are available outside of their tight knit community. The story is narrated by one of the young girls, named Sylvia.
Instead of simply explaining the disparities that exist in the world, Ms. Moore guides them on an expedition to F. A. O. Schwarz in Manhattan. The famous toy store is only a few miles from where they are growing up, but a world away from their lifestyle. In this way Ms. Moore engages the students in the realities of their lives, and forces them to think about the discrepancies in wealth and opportunity between what they see on a daily basis and what occurs in American society. Her main objective is to make them consider their current predicament of life in poverty as compared to that of the wealthy. F. A. O. Schwarz caters to a wealthy clientele who are able to purchase toys costing exorbitant amounts.
“Will you look at this sailboat, please,” say Flyboy, cuttin her off and pointin to the thing like it was his. So once again we tumble all over each other to gaze at this magnificent thing in the toy store which is just big enough to maybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the posts tight. We all start reciting the price tag like we in assembly. “Handcrafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars.”
“Unbelievable,” I hear myself say and am really stunned. I read it again for myself just in case the group recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she looking at us, waiting for I dunno what.
The students compare the price of the toy to the amount it costs to feed a family. They begin to see the monetary inequities for themselves. Ms. Moore is aware this is not something she could teach them; it is something they had to see, feel, and take to heart. Sylvia, for all of her bravado, begins to feel something stir inside of her when it is time to enter the store.
But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away for Sugar to lead. But she hangs back too. And I look at her and she looks at me and this is ridiculous.
Upon returning to their own neighborhood, the students and teacher participate in a discussion during which they make some prophetic statements.
“Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?”
“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?”
Ms. Moore knows the trip into town was a success. And, although Sylvia will not give Ms. Moore the satisfaction of talking about it, she becomes introspective as she thinks about the events of the day, and she declares to herself, “But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.”