The Lives On Fifth Avenue

In Toni Cade Bambara’s The Lesson, the students being taught by Miss Moore come to realize some of the differences between their lives and the lives of the people who shop on 5th avenue. When Miss Moore is talking about the kids, she describes Sylvia and her friends as “all poor and live in the slums” (110). When the group arrives at Fifth Avenue, they are enthralled with the objects they see in the windows and how much they cost. They find a paperweight that costs $480 and are confused at first, curious as to why a paperweight is even needed. The students talk about if they have paper on their desk at school or at home that would need a paperweight and say, ‘”I don’t even have a desk,’ say Junebug. ‘Do we?’ ‘No. And I don’t even get homework neither,’ says Big Butt. ‘And I don’t even have a home,’ say Flyboy” (112). The kids start realize that their lives are very different, and are surprised that people would spend that much money. They continuously say, “White folks crazy” (114), emphasizing that they feel different and out of place from the people that they are encountering.

Each item they see, they check the price and are surprised every time. Sylvia saw a $35 toy clown and thought about what that money could buy for her and her family. “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” (114). This contrast between what people spend their money on was really an eye-opener for Sylvia. She could not understand why people would pay so much for one thing when in her community and house, that money could be better used somewhere else. The author gave this insight into Sylvia’s mind in order to show that she recognizes Fifth Avenue and her home as two very different entities and realizes the very evident differences between the two.

3 thoughts on “The Lives On Fifth Avenue

  1. Elijah J

    I really enjoyed reading this story as well. The critiques of class and racial divides are so woven into the story that it’s much less like being force-fed vegetables and a lot more like eating an iced carrot cake. Given that it was first published in 1972, and likely takes place even earlier than that, it really illustrates how long these divides have existed. Compared to today, these inequalities have grown at an alarming rate.


  2. Emma L

    I also thought it was interesting that the small detail of the prices of the different toys could be so significant to these kids. Especially because children aren’t really expected to think about the financial struggles of their families, and Sylvia and the others were making such deep connections about what $35 means to them versus the people who shop on 5th Avenue.


  3. cassie m

    It was really enthralling when the kids were looking at the prices of toys and thinking about what it could do for their families. “The Lesson” did a really good job of showing the inequalities of the world, especially regarding wealth, class, and race.


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