Why does Sylvia keep $4 of the five-dollar bill given her by Miss Moore in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson?"
In Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson," Sylvia is all about being ahead in "the game." She has no idea that the "game" is about to change.
Miss Moore gets the kids for a couple of hours with the intent of teaching them about the world around them: how it controls people of their race (a "toy" store where none of these children could ever hope to shop) and education that is not presented for children of color, etc. (We can infer this last piece because had there been this kind of program available for the children, Miss Moore would not need to do it on her own time, with her own money.)
Miss Moore's intent is not to create in the children a resentful attitude because they cannot have the things they see in this almost obscene store for "children" (but not these children), but she wants them to know what the world offers if they work hard. She wants them to be aware and to care. With these two "weapons," they will be better prepared to fight to rise above their poverty while opening avenues to them as adults that have not been open to their parents.
Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don't necessarily have to be that way...
Sylvia, on the other hand, believes she doesn't need to hear anything that Miss Moore has to say. She ridicules her with her friends, and even her parents. However, Miss Moore is a warrior in her own right. She surely knows how they feel, but she never takes it personally. She continues to try. On this day, Miss Moore gave Sylvia five dollars for the taxi and she only spent one. Miss Moore has to be aware of how much the ride would cost and could have given Sylvia single dollar bill, but did not. This is not a spontaneous event: she plans it with specific reasons. Perhaps she wants Sylvia to feel empowered, a rare emotion for these kids. Sylvia feels the "weight" of that four dollars in her pocket—it's like payment for the inconvenience of the day:
...she sure ain't gettin it Messin up my day with this shit.
And Sugar stands by winking and nudging as if they have a secret. By the end of the story, she and Sugar plan to go get food. They have left Miss Moore behind, but the seed of today's lesson has already taken root with Sylvia and she is preoccupied. This is a turning point in her life, even if she doesn't know it: for the knowledge, as with the apple in Eden, has been revealed to her. Sugar says:
We could go to Hascombs and get half a chocolate layer and then go to the Sunset and still have plenty money for potato chips and ice cream sodas.
Sylvia is only able to distractedly respond:
It is a rite of passage, perhaps even a "loss of innocence" because for Sylvia, the lure of temporary satisfaction will never be enough.
We recall the moment when it occurred, as the group was still gathered. Sylvia is thinking and Miss Moore is looking for that epiphany—asking for it:
And somethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest. "Anybody else learn anything today?" lookin dead at me.
It is not until the last few lines that we realize that today Miss Moore has done the very thing Sylvia swore she could not do: she has touched Sylvia's mind.
[Sugar] gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I'm going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.
For Miss Moore, the four dollars is nothing compared to the reward that Sylvia will reap someday.