, Research Paper
Children learn in school about famous Americans like George Washington,
Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King who fought to make this the land of
freedom, opportunity, and equality for all. They learn about famous documents
like the Declaration of Independence which declares that All Men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. One of the most
difficult things about growing up as a member of a minority group within the
United States, is learning that America is not the perfect portrait of equality,
opportunity, and freedom that some make it out to be.
In Toni Cade Bambara s short story, The Lesson, Bambara shows one
womens attempt to show a group of poor black kids the inequalities that exisist
within our so called equal society. In the story, set in the time period immediately
following World War II, a group of black children are taken on a field trip to an
upscale part of New York City — namely, Fifth Avenue, an exclusive and
expensive shopping district frequented primarily by whites. The guide of the field
trip is an intelligent young black woman with a college degree named Miss Moore.
Miss Moore lives near the children and takes responsibility in the education of the
On the trip Miss Moore takes the children to the very famous toy store
F.A.O. Schwartz. There the children are exposed to rooms full of toys which cost
more than their parents annual incomes, and to all the trappings of luxury and
afluence that they never knew existed. After entering the store the stories narrator,
a street-smart girl named Sylvia, begins to wonder what Miss Moores goal is in
bringing the children to a toy store. Miss Moore intends to do way more than
window shopping. In fact Miss Moores intentions go way beyond that. She has
brought the children to the store to teach them a lesson.
She introduces the topic of her lesson by asking the children if they know
what real money is; Sylvia wonders sarcastically if Miss Moore thinks it s only
poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer (Bambara 350). This
shows that Sylvia and her friends think of money as a necessary component of
eking out a living; it is a consumable for them, consumed on plain food which is
cooked and eaten, fuel which is burned, clothes which are worn out, a roof over
their heads which becomes incresingly decrepit with each passing year.
Miss Moore intends to show the children that real money is the sustaining
force behind luxury. Real money pays for fur coats for white women to wear in
August, collectable model sailboats that cost $1,195, $480 paperweights which do
nothing except decorate desks, and a $35 tricky clown which does somersaults
on a bar. Sylvia points out that Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for
Junior and Gretchen s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go
visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent
and the piano bill too (Bambara 354). Rich people look at this money differently
and spend it on toys. At this point it really starts to sink into Sylvia and she begins
to understand Miss Moore s intentions of bringing the children to the store. Sylvia
asks 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 (Bambara 354) This angers her becauses she
knows that these people are nearly all white.
Interestingly, however, not all the children react to the impact of Miss
Moore s lesson in the same way. For example, Sugar s answer that this is not
much of a democracy….Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at
the dough, (Bambara 354) is certainly correct but to facile. Sugar only partly
understands what Miss Moore is trying to get the children to realize. The trip
through the store really had no affect on Sugar. She is not confused and angered
like Sylvia because Sylvia understands the lesson and the implications of it. The
practical Rosie Giraffe observes that Parents silly to buy something like that
[sailboat] just to get all broke up (Bambara 352). The prissy Mercedes does not
perceive the fact that no matter how much birthday money she saves up, she will
never be able to buy anything at F.A.O. Schwartz. However, Miss Moore s
lesson is of such gargantuan proportions that Sylvia is overwhelmed by its
implications; she has to escape from the group to think this day through
This shows that Sylvia understands the implications of Miss Moore s lesson.
The lesson has to do with the nature of the relationship of money to class.
There is something wrong with a society in which one class can spend $1000 for
toy sailboats while another class goes hungry. There is something wrong with a
society in which one s ability to shop at stores like F.A.O. Schwartz is a given,
while the children of Sylvia s class can only covet.
The Promise of the American Dream is that any enterprising person can
break the ceiling of poverty and come out on Fifth Avenue. This idea is so
hallowed in our country s belief system that when Sylvia first walks into the store
she feels another emotion often connected with church–shame. She is ashamed to
walk into the store because her inability to buy makes her unworthy. Bambara
uses this to expose the dark underbelly of the one sided American Dream. Sylvia
leaves the store filled with conflicting emotions: shock, shame, frustration, anger:
but also desire. If the last line holds true Ain t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin
(Bambara 354)– it is desire which will gain the ascendancy. Bambara uses the
story to make a point. This point is Miss Moores lesson which is intended to
instill not only awareness of how the other half lives, but anger at the fact that
black people in America do not tend to live this way: and a passion to do
something about it.
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