Narrated in the voice of Sylvia, a preadolescent black girl, "The Lesson" is her version of a summer day trip organized by Miss Moore, a socially conscious spinster who is determined to teach eight children a lesson about the nature of money and how it is distributed in American society. In order to expose the children to the notion of class differences, Miss Moore, the self-appointed teacher, takes them from the "slums" in New York City to the upscale retail area on Fifth Avenue where they visit F.A.O. Schwarz, a world-famous toy store. Although the lesson Miss Moore attempts to teach is quite serious, the story is infused with sassy humor provided by the various children's honest and irreverent voices.
Sylvia, who narrates the story, is a young girl living in a poor area of New York City. She and her friends are developing their strategies to cope with life as they know it. She has adopted the pose of a know-it-all who can figure out things for herself, and she tells herself that she resents and has no use for Miss Moore, the college-educated African American woman who frequently serves as a guide and unofficial teacher for the local children.
Miss Moore arranges a trip for Sylvia, Sugar, and six other children to go to the F. A. O. Schwarz toy store at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. Miss Moore knows that this will be a new experience for the children, who have been isolated in their neighborhood, and that they will encounter items they have never seen, items that are far beyond their economic means. She wants the youngsters to learn that there is much more to the world than the slum area they know, and particularly for them to realize that wealth is unfairly and unequally distributed.
The emphasis on the relative value of money begins for Sylvia when Miss Moore gives her a five-dollar bill to pay the taxi fare to the store. Sylvia is told to include a 10 percent tip for the driver and return the change to Miss Moore. Sylvia gives the cab driver the fare of eighty-five cents but decides that she needs money more than he does and keeps not only the tip but the remainder of the money.
At the toy store, the children feel uneasy and out of place. Looking through the window, they are stunned by the products offered and by their high prices. Ronald sees what he recognizes as a microscope, for three hundred dollars, but neither he nor the others know what a microscope is used for or how it might fit their academic education or their future jobs. Rosie spots a chunk of glass with a price tag of $480. None of them knows what it is, even when Miss Moore says it is a paperweight. Only one of the children has a study area at home where she might have papers to scatter, so they do not understand the concept, much less why someone might want, or be able and willing to pay $480 for, a fancy glass paperweight. Another boy interrupts Miss Moore’s explanations when he sees a toy sailboat priced at $1,195. The children cannot imagine who could spend so much money on the boat, especially because they think it would probably break or be stolen when they played with it. Even Sylvia is stunned at the price. She hesitates to go inside the store, feeling ashamed somehow, as though she does not belong here, despite her bravado that she can do anything she wants.
Inside, Sylvia becomes angry at the high prices. She wants to know who are these people who could spend a thousand dollars on toy sailboats and why she and her friends cannot. As Miss Moore takes the youngsters home, she asks them to think of what kind of society it is in which some people can spend more on a toy than others have to spend on food and housing. Sugar responds that it must not be much of a democracy because some people obviously do not have an equal opportunity to earn money. Sylvia feels Sugar has betrayed her by giving Miss Moore the satisfaction of an answer, and she walks away.
Sugar catches up with Sylvia, glad that they kept the rest of the money Miss Moore gave them...
(The entire section is 1,482 words.)