The Lesson Book summary
Toni Cade Bambara
The Lesson follows Sylvia, a young black girl from Harlem, as she visits the upscale Toy Store on Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz, with her cousins under the guidance of Miss Moore, a young black college graduate woman.
The narrator, Sylvia, begins the story by taking us back to her childhood when she lived in Harlem, New York, along with her friend, Sugar. Sylvia hated the young black woman, Miss Moore, who had moved to their block rather recently. Miss Moore wore no makeup, had natural hair, and she always dressed like she was going to church though she never did. Sylvia and her friends hated Miss Moore because she was always coming up with strange things for the youngsters to do in the name of education, and their families went along with her ridiculousness because she had a college degree. Sylvia and her cousins were often reluctantly dragged away from their Aunt Gretchen’s home for Miss Moore’s educational trips.
Miss Moore gathered them all together near the mailbox on a particularly hot day and began to teach them basic arithmetic. Sylvia and the others weren’t interested in the trip, and Sylvia voiced her exasperation as she informed Miss Moore that she would rather be doing anything else. Sylvia hated how Miss Moore sometimes treated them like they were completely obtuse, like when she asked them if they understood the concept of money. Miss Moore continues her lecture on Arithmetic as she shifts to money and begins to tell them what things cost and the money that their parents make. Sylvia is particularly angered when Miss Moore tells them they are all poor and live in the slums because Sylvia doesn’t think this applies to her.
Miss Moore hails two cabs and packs half the group with her and sends the other with Sylvia to whom she hands five dollars with instructions to calculate ten percent for the driver’s tip. Sylvia is overjoyed with the money and wants to have the cab stop at the closest turn so they can all head to a barbecue place, but the others are too intrigued by the meter. The taxi ride ends before Sylvia can execute her plan, and she decides to keep the money rather than give the driver any tip since she decides that she needs it more than him. Sylvia and her friends find themselves on Fifth Avenue among rich white people, all of whom wear stockings, as Sylvia notes. Miss Moore draws the children’s attention and tells them to have a look in the windows of the store before they enter. They all crowd around the displays and wildly begin to call out the toys that they would all like to get. Big Butt’s voice draws them all to the microscope that he wants to buy. The children make fun of him for wanting a microscope, but Miss Moore encourages him by telling him all that he could see using the device. They all learn that it costs three hundred dollars, an impossible amount that he could never save from just his allowance.
They are then distracted by another expensive item on the display, a paperweight that costs nearly five hundred dollars. Miss Moore struggles to explain to the children the function of the paperweight and discovers that most of them have no study table or stationary at home. The group’s attention is diverted to a final item on the display, a toy sailboat of fiberglass with a cost of a thousand dollars. The children are shocked by the toy’s price since their sailboats have rarely ever cost them more than a dollar. They wonder aloud what kind of parents could afford to get their children such an expensive toy. Sylvia rarely asks Miss Moore any questions, but she is forced to ask Miss Moore about the price of a real boat since she believes that a thousand dollars ought to be enough for an actual yacht. Miss Moore refuses to give her a straight answer and instead asks her to research the question and report the answer back to the group.
Miss Moore then directs the children to go into the store, but she chooses not to lead them. Sylvia finds herself in the front of the group along with Sugar, and as they reach the door she begins to feel reluctant. She fails to push open the door and realizes that she is too ashamed of her poverty to enter the store, even though she knows that she fundamentally has as much right as anyone else to enter the store. Mercedes seems to be the only youth who seems to feel undaunted, and she leads the group by entering first. Sylvia is reminded of the time when she had planned to play a prank in a church with sugar but she had been too daunted by the sacred air of the priests and nuns. She feels a similar emotion as she tiptoes through the store with the rest of the group who are all strangely hushed. None of them stop to touch any of the amazing games and puzzles that are arrayed on the shelves. Sylvia notices that Miss Moore is watching them all very closely as if she is waiting for them to say something. Sylvia becomes aware that she is angry, as she watches Sugar run a finger over the sailboat. Sylvia suddenly feels the urge to hit Sugar or someone else, and she instead directs her anger towards Miss Moore. She angrily asks her why Miss Moore had brought them all there and receives an adult’s grin in return from Miss Moore who asks her if she is angry.
The group takes the subway for the return journey, and Sylvia sits at the back of the train with Sugar, thinking about a clown toy that she had seen at the Toy store. She imagines the incredulous refusal that she would receive from her mother if she ever expressed the desire for a toy worth thirty-five dollars. They could use that money in so many other ways, and Sylvia is forced to wonder once again about the kind of people that could afford to spend a thousand dollars on a toy sailboat. Sylvia vindictively thinks that Miss Moore may have ruined her day but Sylvia had kept four dollar change from the cab fare that Miss Moore had given her. Miss Moore lines them all up at the Mailbox where they had started, and the children lean on one another preparing for her usual closing lecture, but it never comes. Miss Moore simply asks them what they had thought of the trip to the toy store. The group collectively shoves Mercedes away when she says that she would like to visit it again around her birthday. Sugar surprises Sylvia as she tells Miss Moore that all members of their group probably don’t eat in a whole year what that sailboat costs. Miss Moore eagerly waits for more, but Sylvia stands on Sugar’s foot to stop her from speaking. Sugar shoves Sylvia away as she voices the criticism that their democracy is broken since equal opportunity ought to mean an equal opportunity to earn money. Sylvia stands on Sugar’s foot once again and successfully shuts her up. Miss Moore looks at Sylvia with sorrow, and she feels something weird in her chest as their teacher asks them all if anyone else has anything to say. Sylvia leaves, and Sugar follows close behind. She comes up to Sylvia and proposes plans on how to spend the money that they had made from Miss Moore but Sylvia doesn’t respond as Sugar continues ahead. Sylvia decides that she needs to be alone to think about the day and that she never wants to be beaten at anything.
Author(s)Toni Cade Bambara
African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
Black Arts Movement, AAVE