A review of The Lesson By Toni Bambara

In the story “The Lesson,” Sylvia the protagonist of the story; a young girl from whose perspective the story is narrated considers Miss Moore’s lessons as useless, but ends up learning a great lesson about the economic inequality that exists in the society from one of such lessons. 

Sylvia had a sense of self judgement, she felt she could always figure out things herself and do whatever she wanted. Everyone else was stupid in the eyes of Sylvia except herself and her cousin, Sugar. With this attitude she hated the boring and instructive lessons of Miss Moore, a black American lady who volunteered to be an informal teacher to the kids in her neighbourhood. Aside the arithmetic she taught the kids Miss Moore always explained the intricate details of everything the kids came across even when it was not necessary.  While explaining what paper weight is statements like”, that’s a paperweight made of semi-precious stones fused together under tremendous pressure” (Bambara 349) shows how detailed Miss Moore was and this reaction by Sylvia to one of Miss Moore’s lesson “….blah blah blah” (Bambara 349) shows how useless they were to her.

  Repeatedly in the story Sylvia is irritated by Miss Moore lessons. She grumbles at some arithmetic lesson which Miss Moore taught during the summer break, got pissed off by Miss Moore question about the true meaning of money, and equally questions the intent of the lessons “whatcha you bring us here for, Miss Moore?” (Bambara 352). Sylvia even imagines being somewhere else will be more fulfilling than attending any of Miss Moore’s lessons.

However, it is from one of this seemingly useless Miss Moore’s lesson period that Sylvia gets an insight into the economic inequality that exists in the society. Miss Moore decides to take Sylvia along with six other children out to the F. A. O. Schwarz toy store at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street. She gives her a five-dollar bill for their transport fare to the toy store. Sylvia is told to give the driver ten percent tip and return the change to Miss Moore, but she does otherwise. Sylvia decides she needs money more than the driver and gives him the exact transport fare of eighty-five cents and also holds back the four dollars change due to Miss Moore, she did this with the intent of spending the money on some food-treat. This is the first instance where the relative value of money is revealed.

Prior to this time Sylvia had been vexed when Miss Moore asked them if they knew what money was and labelled them as poor people who lived in the slums. Sylvia even paid deaf ears to Miss Moore’s talk about how money is not evenly distributed in the country. Sylvia and her friends are largely insulated in the neighbourhood in which they live that she was unaware of how other people lived, particularly the rich. In fact, Sylvia is so ignorant of the economic differences that exist in the society that she perceives that people like she and her cousin Sugar are at the top of the social structure as they look down at others in the neighbourhood. She explains that they laughed at Miss Moore the way they did  at the junk man ” ….laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary.” (Bambara 347)

            Significantly, when they get to the shop before they go inside Miss Moore suggests they look through the windows. This is symbolic because Miss Moore wanted to demonstrate to the kids that the store was not a place any of their families could shop. The first item they look at is a microscope. A microscope reveals that which is hidden from the naked eyes, and at this point the kids were about to see what had been hidden from them due to their isolation. The children are captivated at the sight of other toys; they see a toy sailboat worth one thousand one hundred and ninety -five dollars and a paper weight, and at least one of the kids like each of these items. They are stunned by the prices and wonder how much the real sailboat will cost. Miss Moore allows them to think of the prices for a while before they go in, Sylvia and Sugar hesitate to go in because she has suddenly been hit by the reality she failed to recognise; she was beginning to understand the lesson Miss Moore was teaching them. However, she still does not know Miss Moore’s intent.  A younger girl Mercedes leads the way into the store, where Miss Moore quietly observes the kids move around. Sylvia and her friends are filled with awe that they walk on tiptoe hardly touching anything. This is a clear reflection that the kids were beginning to realise that there is more to the world than they thought.

On their way home Miss Moore decides to take them through the subway rather than a taxi because she wants them compare what the rich have that they don’t have. This approach turns out to be very effective because Sylvia ponders on what she has seen today. After considering the tremendous opportunity cost it will take her family to get the tricky clown of thirty-five dollars, she becomes angry and wants to know who this people are that could spend so much on a toy and what they do for a living “who are these people that spend that much for a performing clown and $1000 for a sailboat?”(Bambara 352).

 The visit to the toy store adequately emphasized the amount of money some Americans spend on items for purely leisure to Sylvia. She realised that equal economic opportunities do not exist for her and other rich kids. As one of the kids puts it during Miss Moore F.A.O Schwarz post- visit question section, “…..I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat cost” (Bambara 353). Sylvia realises that Miss Moore’s lesson was useful today but refuses to admit it.  She tries to stop sugar from answering some of her questions by stepping on her feet and urging her not to give Miss Moore that satisfaction. Though Sylvia walks away from Miss Moore, this time it was not like other times when she wanted to go to some place and catch fun, but it was to think of the lesson she pretended not to learn today.

By the end of the story she is no longer eager to spend the money she got from the taxi fare with sugar on a food-treat. Sylvia is determined to rise above the circumstances around her and create a better life for herself thanks to Miss Moore’s lesson.