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Key elements and insights of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara

Summary:

"The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara explores themes of economic inequality, social justice, and the awakening of self-awareness. Key elements include the character of Miss Moore, who uses a field trip to an upscale toy store to expose the children to the stark contrast between their impoverished lives and the wealthier world, prompting reflections on societal disparities and personal aspirations.

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What is the climax of Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"?

In Toni Cade Bambara's short story "The Lesson," the reader is introduced to the narrator, Sylvia, who has a standing (though quiet) feud with Miss Moore. Miss Moore has moved into the neighborhood and the kids don't appreciate her—the same way they don't appreciate anyone who they think handles him- or herself with distinction:

...the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary.

They also don't like anyone one who interferes with their ability to play:

...the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs...

Miss Moore is aggravating because she is always planning activities for the kids that Sylvia finds boring and a waste of time.

From the reader's standpoint, it seems that Miss Moore is attempting to present the world to these inner-city children, teaching them how they could change the economic level to which they were born, as opposed to staying forever where their parents have raised them. Having graduated from college, Miss Moore is apparently trying to give back by providing these young people with life-truths that might motivate them to choose paths of hope (rising above how they live), rather than those of apathy and ease (clinging to what they have always known). Miss Moore tries to explain:

...she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature.

In Sylvia's youthfulness, she cannot see the realities of the world in which she lives.

On this particular day, Miss Moore takes the kids to a fancy and expensive toy store. There the kids learn about things they never knew existed. For instance, they see a paperweight for $480. Miss Moore explains that the glass object rests on papers to keep them from blowing away. Few of the kids present have papers or desks. Some of them think Miss Moore is "crazy or lyin one."

The youngsters also see toys that are ridiculously expensive, such as the sailboat that costs $1,195.

Sylvia is noticeably taken aback:

"Unbelievable," I hear myself say and am really stunned...For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what.

They move around the store for some time; the kids are "walkin on tiptoe," afraid to touch anything. This is not a place where they belong.

"Watcha bring us here for, Miss Moore?"

"You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?" ...And she's lookin very closely at me...I'm mad, but I won't give her the satisfaction.

On the train ride home, Sylvia's mind is busy and agitated. She cannot imagine going home and asking her mother even for a small toy from such a place. She'd look at Sylvia as if she were crazy. A thirty-five dollar price tag, for example, represents something of a fortune to Sylvia and her family: with it they could pay the bills for the rent and for the piano, or buy bunk beds. Sylvia wonders about the people that can afford such things.

The climax is...

...the moment in a play, novel, short story, or narrative poem at which the crisis comes to its point of greatest intensity...

This is the story's climax:

What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don't necessarily have to be that way...then [Miss Moore] waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie...

Sylvia and Sugar run off to spend the money left over from the cab fare. While Sugar runs wildly ahead, Sylvia hangs back. She wants to go somewhere where she can think over what she has seen on their trip. One thing she knows for certain:

But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

The "lesson" has not been wasted on Sylvia.

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What is the climax of Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"?

Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson" is written using a first person narration. Sylvia, the narrator, tells the story of Miss Moore (a new woman in her neighborhood). Given that Miss Moore does everything very differently than the other adults in the neighborhood (wears her hair natural and does not go to church), she is intriguing to the children of the community.

One day Miss Moore decides to teach the children of the community a lesson on being African American and poor. She takes the children to F.A.O. Schwarz so that they can see the world from a different perspective.

The climax comes when Sylvia finally comes to accept the real issues which exist. Although she is initially angry at her friend Sugar for taking part in the "lesson" and questioning society, her realization of the inequality which takes place in the world. It is Sylvia's acceptance which turns the story around as she beings to question her own place and status. This also shows the relevance of Miss Moore's name. The children were taught a lesson to want more

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What do students learn in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"?

Miss Moore takes Sylvia and her friends to FAO Schwartz, a famously extravagant toy store. She wants the children to see the kinds of things that privileged people can afford to do with their money. Most of the kids have parents who struggle to pay rent, pay bills, and put food on the table. The kids see a $300 microscope through the window and say that they'd outgrow it before they could save enough allowance to purchase it. Miss Moore tells them that "you never outgrow learning instruments."

One girls points out a $480 glass paperweight. Another boy draws attention to a $1195 fiberglass sailboat. Sylvia, the narrator, says, "For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what." Sylvia cannot understand why she feels afraid to go inside; after all, it's "just a toy store," she says, "But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody."

When Sylvia and Sugar get closer to the boat, Sylvia realizes that she's "jealous" and has a strong desire to "punch somebody in the mouth." Miss Moore asks her why she sounds angry, and Sylvia can only think about the people who can afford thousand-dollar sailboats:

What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?

Sugar realizes that their society really isn't much of a democracy because not everyone has an equal chance to pursue happiness or "an equal crack at the dough."

The kids learn, I think, that society is unfair. There are so many challenges they will face as a result of their skin color: a lack of economic and social privilege, racism and prejudice, and a lack of education or fewer opportunities to get one. The kids learn to recognize racial disparity and to get angry about it. Perhaps their anger will spur them on to activism, prevent their becoming complacent, and even lead to social change.

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What do students learn in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"?

Miss Moore has the right idea.  Demonstrate that life can be different through experiences in other lifestyles.  Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is narrated by Sylvia, a bitter and cynical young girl. Sylvia talks about the other kids in the group with disdain basing her nicknames on how they act or look. 

The neighborhood parent group wants Miss Moore to show their students ways to lift themselves out of poverty and experience life outside of the projects. To Sylvia, Miss Moore’s lessons are a waste of time.  Today’s lesson is to visit the FAO Schwartz Toy Store.

Using their math skills to figure out prices and taxi fares, Sylvia still thinks she would rather be somewhere else. Miss Moore obviously values and is aware of Sylvia’s maturity because she places her in charge of the second cab.

What will be learned from going to a fancy toy store in downtown Manhattan? Some of the students quickly pick up on the uselessness of some of the items for sale.  $1,000 for a sail boat…a useless $480 paper weight—these items could feed a family of seven or eight for a while.  Is this what the rich people do with their money?

The students run the gamut from having no desk at home, to never receiving any homework, to just not having a home.  It is important to Miss Moore to show the children two things: life does not have to be as hard as it is for their parents and education is the key. Surprisingly, Sylvia actually understands Miss Moore’s point in the lesson.

All of the children feel out of place in the story. As she enters the store, Sylvia feels an overwhelming sense of shame. She also sees the things that are beyond her reach. One toy sticks out in her mind: a clown that did tricks that cost $35. She could never ask her mother for something so useless. That much money could buy beds for the boys. It could help pay the rent.

Angrily, Sylvia ask the question:

Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out.

Miss Moore’s real message is that it does not have to be this way for them.  Study hard, have ambition, and get out of the projects.  All of them can do this if that is what they want. 

Sylvia’s friend seems to understand the lesson:

“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…

Sugar understands and brings up a relevant point about the true lack of equality in a democracy.

Sylvia does not join in on the fun after the return to home.  Something goes through to her today.  She wants to go off and think things over about what she learned in the lesson today. 

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What do students learn in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"?

Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” raises important points about social inequality and individual qualities that can help overcome it. The story shows how children gain awareness of social inequality, but not always in the ways that adults intend to each them. Miss Moore believes that she bonds with the children on the basis of race. By taking them to a fancy toy store in a rich neighborhood of New York, she aims to teach the children about the inherent unfairness of the American social and economic system. She encourages them to think critically about the vast disparities between rich and poor.

Sylvia, however, understands that Miss Moore is not like them, even though she is also Black, because she is a well-to-do, highly educated outsider. Sylvia complains about “the nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree.” When Miss Moore explains to the children that they are poor, Sylvia does not accept her evaluation:

And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature.

Sylvia understands that Miss Moore is trying to increase their awareness of inequality and injustice. She mentions Miss Moore asking them what they think of a “society…in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family.” She knows that the answer Sugar provides is what Miss Moore wants to hear:

[T]his is not much of a democracy if you ask me.

Sylvia condemns her friend for being manipulated. The day’s events not only cause her to think more about inequality, but cause a break in their friendship as she vows to excel on her own terms:

She [Sugar] can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

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What is the theme of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

 Miss Moore, a well-educated black woman, wants the children in her neighborhood to be exposed to the more cultural aspects of life. Supported by the local parents’ group,  she takes on the challenge of teaching the local kids about life outside of the projects.  Toni Cade Bambara uses the story “The Lesson” to expose the African-American problem of social inequality and the lack of quality education for the black children.

Theme

The author uses the lesson by Miss Moore of poverty of  the impoverished children of New York City’s ghetto.  It is apparent that all of these black children have hopes and desires just like other kids their age. 

Poverty does not mean stupid or lacking in desires.  The teacher wants to empower the students to make a change in their future by seeing the importance of education and what their lives could be like instead of the poverty in which they live.

Protagonist and Narrator

At the center of the story is Sylvia, a young black girl, who serves as the protagonist and narrator of the story:

Back  in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. 

Sylvia’s cynical attitude make her an unreliable narrator.  Everything is tainted by her bitterness and defiance.  She does not need Miss Moore or her fancy ideas.  To Sylvia, Miss Moore is the enemy who prevents the students from having fun. 

Using the point of view of the sassy Sylvia makes the story fun despite the seriousness of the subject.  Eventually, Sylvia understands what Miss Moore wants and looks at her as the teacher not the enemy.

Today’s Lesson

The important lesson for this day centers on a trip to FAO Schwartz Toy Store in downtown Manhattan.  Miss Moore hopes to show the students another side of life and point out that the education is important if they want the better lifestyle.

Miss Moore has the students use math skills in figuring tips, the cost of cab fares  the prices of the toys, and most importantly, the uselessness of some of the items.  From this, hopefully the students will understand the difference between their  lives and the people who can afford these toys.  

The students see a paperweight that is useless in their lives.  A sailboat that costs $1,000 makes the point that the price of some of the toys could feed a family of six or seven. Some of the children get the message that there is social inequality, and they want to change the course of their lives. 

Sylvia fights to accept the lesson of  Miss Moore.  She gets mad at her cousin for taking part in the discussion with the teacher. Despite her hard façade, Sylvia may be the only student that actually gets the lesson. 

What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it? Where we are is who we are... But it don't necessarily have to be that way, Miss Moore always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don't none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place.

Despite her cynicism, Sylvia gets it.  Something has clicked in her.  At the end of the story, she wants to be by herself to think over what she has learned. Still cynical and bitter, Sylvia is at the edge of change. 

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What is the theme of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

The theme of Bambara's "The Lesson" has to do with the unfairness of socioeconomic status under which the children suffer.  In the story, Miss Moore takes the children to F. A. O. Schwartz to show the children how expensive the toys are there.  The children cannot believe that people have enough money to pay for such luxuries.  They are also surprised by the social etiquette that they must use while at the store.  The children feel very out of place because they are not in their element.  They start to connect their feelings to the realities of others who live lives in varying states of poverty.  Miss Moore subtley tells the children that it is possible for them to rise above the conditions of their community so that one day they can work to correct the inequalities in the world.  Although this message is not fully realized by the children, they do start to consider Miss Moore's lesson, and the story ends with the hope that this message will continue to resonate with the children.

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What is the theme of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

Toni Cade Bambara’s story “The Lesson“ employs a first person narration with Sylvia, as the narrator and protagonist. Sylvia is a 12 year old black girl, cynical, intelligent, and the obvious leader of the group of children.  The story takes place in the 1970s with the main character growing up in Harlem.  The lesson of the story is the value of education and the ability to change the course of a person’s life.

Summary

Miss Moore, the only educated person in the neighborhood and an admirable lady, has taken on the responsibility of exposing the local children to the world outside their community.  The children are unappreciative, poor, and black.  On this day, the lesson is to take the oppressed children to FAO Schwartz in Manhattan. She lets the children experience their first ride in a taxicab. The sarcastic Sylvia gives her opinion:

So we heading down the street and she's boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain't divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums which I don't feature. And I'm ready to speak on that, but she steps out in the street and hails two cabs just like that.

The toy store displays toys that cost more than the entire incomes of the families of the children.  Lost on the children, the lesson intended by Miss Moore is to show another aspect of life and to inspire them to want more in their future.  Initially, the lesson aggravates the contemptuous children, but finally the point of the trip begins to hit home to some of the children, particularly Sylvia.  Sugar steals money from Miss Moore from the cab ride.  At the last minute, Sylvia decides to go off alone to contemplate the events of the day.

The Lessons

Miss Moore allows the children to evaluate for themselves the difference between the Fifth Avenue world and the one in which they live.  The world of Manhattan is almost like being in another country. These informal lessons are given by Miss Moore at an age when the impression made upon them might generate a spark of desire to find out how they might achieve the same rewards that Manhattan has to offer.

The lesson uses effective imagery particularly in the toy store.  The microscope represents the ability to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye. Miss Moore hopes the children will be able to see into their own lives, to understand their dearth of material things, and to see their own oppression.

The lesson of the paper weight comes from the item that is completely useless  for the children since in their lives they have nothing worth holding down.

The overly expensive sailboat makes them aware of their poor economic future unless they utilize the opportunities available to them.  Miss Moore says, “Where we are is who we are.” Then the children realize the point of the lesson.   

On the way home, the group takes the subway, which brings up another point of comparison:

  • the cab ride and the subway
  • Manhattan and Harlem; the children’s lives now
  • their potential 

Sugar, one of the other children, expresses the fact that the price of one of the toys could feed a family of six or seven.  She also has understood that not everyone has the same chance to be happy. 

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What is the time period of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

While the time period of Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, “The Lesson,” is never stated outright, with some context clues and some further sleuthing, it is possible to make an educated guess. “The Lesson” appears in Bambara’s 1972 short story collection, Gorilla, My Love, and the setting is relatively contemporary, and not science fiction, so we can first guess that the story takes place at or before the early 1970s. The climax of the story takes place at the famed New York City toy store FAO Schwarz; the climax hinges on the absurdly high prices of the merchandise. However, because the prices are so outside the norm, it is hard to guess the time period from these prices alone. The closest we can get to a time-specific price is the cost of the taxi cab that Miss Moore and the neighborhood children take from Harlem to FAO Schwarz. The cost of the taxi is $.85. Consulting tables of taxi fares throughout the years and calculating these fares for the roughly 3.5-4 miles from Harlem to FAO Schwarz would indicate that the story likely takes place in the early 1960s, which makes sense given that the story begins, “Back in the days when . . .” so it probably isn’t meant to be exactly contemporary to the time in which it was published.

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What is the time period of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

In Toni Cade Bambara's short story "The Lesson," the specific time period during which the story takes place is not stated.  However, based on the contextual clues offered by Sylvia, the story's narrator, the reader can assume that the story takes place sometime in the early 1970s.  First, much of the story takes place at F. A. O. Schwarz in New York City, and Sylvia notes that a few items in the shop cost between $400 and $1200.  These amounts are high, yet toys from F. A. O. Schwarz reportedly ran upwards of $30,000 before the store closed for business.  Further, in the story, Miss Moore gives Sylvia a $5 bill for the cab fare and tip, and Sylvia pays for the fare and has money left to put in her pocket, suggesting the time frame.  These are some clues that help narrow down the time period of the story.

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What is the central idea of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

In Bambara's "The Lesson", an African American teacher who works with poverty-stricken students decides to take them to the rich side of the city to visit the famous toys store F.A.O. Schwartz: one of the icons of capitalism and indulgence in our society. This, she does with the aim of showing her students something different than what they are used to seeing in the environment that they are used to existing: the projects.

When the students get to the store, they are in shock to see that the price of one toy could easily feed a family of 6 or 7 in their neighborhood. The children conclude that "white people are crazy" for spending so much money on things that the children do not even know what they are for. In all, the kids learn both about the price and value of everything in there.

This being said, the central idea of the story can be somewhat summarized in the phrase said by Sugar:

This is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough

While Sugar's statement is debatable depending on your own view of society and the way that the economy is managed in this country, the fact remains that Ms. Moore wants the children to understand that, "technically", that is the exact nature of our country. We do have the potential to all "get an equal crack at the dough". The problem is that unless children who come from poverty make the decision to stand against the odds and succeed, that "equal crack" will not occur by itself. We could conclude that Ms. Moore wanted the children to become inspired to do better for themselves; maybe by eliciting a bit of personal jealousy and a dash of ambition the kids would feel the want to break through and get to be one of the likes who frequent F.A.O. Schwartz.

Ms. Moore seems deflated by Sugar's statement because, in her eyes, she sees the kids reverting back to their known ways, mainly just "hoping" that they could one day get to "crack the dough", rather than actively plan to get it. However, the ending of the story is neutral enough to let the reader suppose that the children are merely having their first reaction to this place; that, somewhere in the back of their minds, they are actually feeling the want for something much bigger and better to take place in their lives.

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What is the central idea of "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara?

The central idea in Bambara's story is the examination of wealth and poverty in American society.  In taking the kids to the toy store, Miss Moore wants the children to critically think about money and the implications it carries in society.  Miss Moore knows that her students come from poor families.  In order for such a condition to be changed, Miss Moore wants the kids to understand the excesses of wealth in society, and specifically how some people have too much (cost of the toy sailboat) and others have so very little.  The fact that Sylvia is disgruntled by the thoughts generated in her mind by the excursion demonstrates the field trip's success. 

Miss Moore's lesson to the children is not to feel bad about themselves, as much as it is for them to raise questions and critical concerns about social values, the emphasis on wealth, and the disparity of economic experiences in a liberal democracy.  When Sugar speaks out to this, Miss Moore feels the lesson worked and Bambara's points are evident.  It is in the implications of wealth in modern society where the central idea of the story resides.

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