Lessons come in many forms, ranging from the mundane to the epiphanizing. But what sort of lessons were taught in Toni Bambara’s short story “The Lesson”? What lessons would be expected from a story about children from 1970’s Harlem and a neighbor who’s enthusiastic about teaching them. The answer may resonate with some, as it is one of economic disparity.
Bambara’s story involves the narrator, Sylvia, and her groups of friends as they have a typical summer day. Much to their chagrin, their neighbor Miss Moore, wants to teach them a lesson, as she always does. She tells them about the importance of money and how they don’t have much of it. She then hails a taxi to take them from Harlem, at the time a poverty-stricken area of Manhattan, to Fifth Avenue, a world famous shopping district. Arriving at a toy store, the kids are baffled at the prices of the toys displayed; a microscope for $480, and a sailboat for $1400 strike them with their high cost. They wonder how anyone could afford such goods. In their neighborhood, $1400 could feed a family for a year. In this nieghborhood, it can get one high-quality toy. Sylvia then eyes a clown toy, this time only $35. She then imagines a scenaio where she asks her mom for the toy. Her mother goes on a tyrade, stating that the $35 could be used to pay off rent or buy a new bed. When the kids return home, Miss Moore asks them what they learned. Sugar, in a speech that the other kids blow off, states that this nation is not much of a democracy if everyone doesn’t have an equal chance at wealth. The kids then go off and play, as if the lesson never happened.
However, the lesson they learned has impacted their understanding of the world. Harlem is a historically black neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. At the time this story was written and from the writer’s life there, Harlem was in poverty and riddled with crime; it was a neighborhood that few wanted to live in. By making Sylvia and her friends go to Fifth Avenue, Miss Moore shows the ugly truth behind wealth disparity. Despite the fact that both area are on the same island, the amount of wealth they have is drastically different. For one area, $1000 can pay for many months of living. In the other, it can pay for one commodity. The kids are shown first hand how different their lives, and for things they cannot change.