The Lesson Characters
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.
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 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
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,...
(The entire section is 1,366 words.)