“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is set in a poor neighborhood of New York probably in the 1950s. Sylvia, the first person narrator, is an African American woman in a difficult situation. She is a normal girl living an impoverished life and is surrounded by poverty not knowing that there was a different reality not too far from her. Her first view of such different reality brought about her realization that there was inequality and injustice in society.
Sylvia is full of angst. She is arrogant and likes to bully people. This is shown in the story as she talks about beating up some West Indian kid. She is the type of person who wants to be known as the leader among her peers. She has that know-it-all attitude that makes her believe that no one can teach her anything significant. Sylvia’s attitude is probably rooted in the fact that she does not get enough attention from her mother as well as in the fact that she grew up without a father. Despite such bad behavior and attitude, Sylvia still possesses certain admirable characteristics. For one, she is quite smart as demonstrated by her eloquence and vivid use of language. This is evident as she spoke of and described a certain person in the neighborhood. She said, “And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the park at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary.” (1107) However, she seems to distrust and dislike people who are different from her and the people she knows. One clear example of such people is Miss Moore.
Miss Moore is not a typical person in Sylvia’s neighborhood. She dresses differently and she talks differently from the rest. Her unusual ways have led her neighbors to criticize her as what Sylvia said, “Which is one of the things the grown-ups talked about when they talked behind her back like a dog.” (1108) However, the most significant trait of Miss Moore that distinguishes her from her neighbors is her desire to educate the children. The responsibility she feels she has over the well-being of the neighborhood’s children is something that no one else has. Her desire to contribute something good to society is what made her bring the children to the toy store.
The toy store that Miss Moore and the children, including Sylvia, visited is not just the typical store. Being located in Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the toy store caters to rich people. The toy store is FAO Schwarz, the toy store known to sell the most expensive and unique toys and gifts. As the children look into the store window, each of them finds something that they want to buy. Sylvia voiced out her want for one of the toys in the window when she said, “This is mine, that’s mine, I gotta have that…” However, just like the other kids, she is stunned and completely surprised when she found out how much the toys cost. When Miss Moore tells them to enter the store, Sylvia hesitates. She suddenly feels like she does not belong in there. More importantly, once inside the store, Sylvia suddenly feels anger brewing up in her. Her anger is fueled by her realization that the cost of toys in the store is the cost of necessities that people in her neighborhood have. She began to question who would have that much money to buy such toys. She began to wonder why those people had such money and why they did not. These same thoughts are brought up as Miss Moore and the children talk about their trip. Asked for a realization, Sylvia refused to say anything but the heaviness in her chest said it all.
Despite her unwillingness to participate in the discussion after the trip to the toy store, it is clear that Sylvia knew what Miss Moore was getting at. She knew that the trip was Miss Moore’s way of making them realize how much inequality and injustice there was in the world. She understood it because even while they were in the store, she was already thinking what $35 could do for her or for other people in her neighborhood. Her anger was not towards Miss Moore. It was towards what Miss Moore made them realize. Although she tries to brush it off and pretend like it was nothing, Sylvia knew very well that something was not right in society. She knew that there was imbalance but sadly, there was nothing she could do about it.