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Big Butt
Big Butt most likely derives his nickname from his eating habits. Before the group leaves for the toy store, he is "already wasting his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich like the pig he is.’’ His response to the toys also reflects this rapaciousness. He wants things without knowing what they are.

Fat Butt
See Big Butt

Flyboy demonstrates the crafty sophistication of a ghetto child. He knows how to extract pity and financial assistance from whites. In his clear-eyed understanding of how to play the monetary game, he appears older than he really is.

Junebug is relatively quiet at the store. He sees the expensive sailboat, which launches the children on the success and failure of the fifty-cent sailboats they sail in the parks.

Mercedes is unlike the other children because she wants to be like the rich, white Americans. She has her own desk at home for doing her homework. She is at home in F. A. O. Schwarz and wants to come back with her birthday money to buy herself a toy. Mercedes, alone of the children, is unperturbed by the price tags on the toys or what they represent about America.

Miss Moore
Miss Moore is a college-educated woman who has come to live in a poor, African-American neighborhood of New York. She takes upon herself the responsibility to teach the neighborhood children about the larger community and the problems that African Americans and poor people face in the world. She takes the neighborhood children on field trips and exposes them to various issues and ways of life. She challenges the children to think about what they see—like the prices on the toys in F. A. O. Schwarz—to question the status quo, and to find out more about the world around them. Miss Moore also imparts her belief in the need for the poor people to step up and demand their fair share of America's wealth.

Q. T. is the youngest and quietest child in the group. His major contribution to the discussion is to openly long for the expensive sailboat and declare the unspoken—that F. A. O. Schwarz is a store for ‘‘rich people.’’

Sugar is Sylvia's closest friend and her cohort. Despite the friendship, Sylvia feels an element of competition with Sugar. When Sugar gets up the nerve to touch the $1,000-dollar sailboat, Sylvia is so jealous that she wants to hit her friend. Sugar is the only child who tells Miss Moore exactly what she wants to hear—that the toys at F. A. O. Schwarz are indicative of the inequity of American society and do not aptly reflect the democratic principles on which the country was founded. She does, however, run off with Sylvia to spend the money left over from the cab.

Sylvia is the narrator of the story. She is a young, tough, smart girl. She is strongly affected by her surroundings and has the capacity to see the truth in things, for example, in the way her family treats Aunt Gretchen. Despite her ability to see the truth in things, she also acts in a dishonest manner; she speaks of wanting to steal hair ribbons and money from the West Indian kids; she doesn't give the cab driver a tip, preferring to keep the money for herself; and she doesn't give the change from the cab ride back to Miss Moore.

Sylvia gets very angry during the trip to F. A. O. Schwarz, even though she claims not to know why. This anger that people could spend so much money on useless items leads her to speak to Miss Moore about her feelings, which surprises even her.

Themes and Characters

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Sylvia, the narrator, is the central character, and it is through her consciousness that readers intuit the significance of the title, "The Lesson." Sylvia is smart, aggressive and the leader of the band of friends and cousins that prefers to spend their summer days "terrorizing the West Indian kids," by snatching "their hair ribbons and their money too." Not quite an adolescent, Sylvia is fascinated with experimenting with the lipstick her friend Sugar has stolen from her mother. Although she seems fearless on her own territory, she "feel funny, shame" when she realizes she is out of her element on Fifth Avenue. Sylvia has always been aware that she is poor, but she has been blissfully ignorant of how startling her disadvantages are until her world is contrasted with that of Manhattan's rich. She has always resented Miss Moore, "the nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree," but after the trip to Fifth Avenue, her anger spreads from Miss Moore to her friends, who have actually admitted to the older woman that they have "gotten" the lesson.

Her closest companion, Sugar, breaks ranks with Sylvia by responding to Miss Moore's probing questions about social justice:

"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?" Miss Moore is besides herself and I am disgusted with Sugar's treachery.

Sylvia's parting of the ways with Sugar signals an ambiguous ending. When Sylvia uncharacteristically lets Sugar get ahead of her as they race down the block to spend the remaining taxi money they "forgot" to return to Miss Moore, she thinks, "She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin."

Miss Moore is the catalyst for Sylvia's angst and also for her newfound determination. Because all of the information readers get about Miss Moore is filtered through Sylvia's irreverent consciousness, she seems at first an uppity, quintessential busybody, "the only woman on the block with no first name." But it is evident that the other elders respect, if not like her: "She'd been to college and it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones' education, and she not even related by marriage or blood."

Miss Moore has a genius for finding teachable moments. After escorting her brood into the toy store, ". . . steady watching us like she waiting for a sign. Like Mama Drewery watches the sky and sniffs the air and takes note of just how much slant is in the bird formation," she stands back as Sugar and Sylvia study the price tag on a $1195 fiberglass sailboat. "Looking closely . . . like maybe she planning to do a portrait from memory," Miss Moore waits for the girls to intuitively grasp her lesson. Although Sylvia realizes the point ("Where we are is who we are Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don't necessarily have to be that way . . ."), she "won't give her that satisfaction" of admitting this out loud. Sylvia's final refusal to publicly acknowledge Miss Moore's lesson about class-consciousness underscores Bambara's theme of generational conflicts in the black community.

Other characters—Big Butt, Rosie Giraffe, Flyboy, Q. T., and Junebug—provide primarily comic relief. On first viewing F.A.O. Schwarz, one child asks, "Can we steal?" Junebug delights in exploiting the humor in bodily noises and in turning Miss Moore's phrases such as "naked eye" into hilarious sexual references. However, Mercedes serves as a foil to the others, emphasizing the theme of inequitable income distribution. Only Mercedes is serious throughout the entire trip, undaunted by the riches before her, perhaps because her home is more upscale: "I have a box of stationery on my desk and a picture of my cat. My godmother bought the stationery and the desk. There's a big rose on each sheet and the envelopes smell like roses." Mercedes, though, seems to have missed the lesson about economic disparity. The others "shove her out of the pack so she has to lean on the mailbox by herself" when Mercedes longs to "go back there again when I get my birthday money."

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Critical Essays