Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” is a brief glimpse into the life of inner city children in the 1960’s. Set in summertime New York City, the reader follows a group of Harlem kids on a trip to the affluent toy store F.A.O. Schwarz orchestrated by their proper speaking, college educated neighbor, Miss Moore.
There is a clearly implied political subtext to the trip, as Miss Moore tries to get the kids to see what is possible with an education by showing them incredible wealth and the vast difference between their reality and the life of the upper echelon in New York.
The lesson Miss Moore is trying to teach the kids is supported by the themes of the disparity of wealth distribution and the importance of education that are placed throughout the text.
Poverty in Harlem was not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination by the time this story was written in the late 1960’s.
By and large, the population consisted of African American laborers that struggled to feed their families of several children. Bambara’s story places thematic importance on the vast disparity between these struggling uptown neighborhoods and the affluence of 5th Avenue just a short cab ride away.
When the lesson clicks with one of the girls (the same girl that earlier in the story, asked if they could steal from the shop) she says “I don’t think all of us put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs”.
(Bambara 201) and the theme of unequal distribution of wealth becomes abundantly clear. The contrast between the daily lives of these kids and the type of person who would buy a $1,000 toy sailboat is incredibly vast, shaping the theme and the impact of the story on the reader.
The importance of education (and the struggle to get inner city children interested in it) is introduced early on in the story, with the narrator complaining that Miss Moore was trying to teach them too much during the summer. The first thing the group sees at the toy store is a microscope, which Miss Moore promptly uses to tout the importance of inquisition, much to the disdain of the narrator: So here go Miss Moore gabbing about the thousands of bacteria in a drop of water and the somethinorother in a speck of blood and the million and one living things in the air around us is invisible to the naked eye. (Bambara 197)
At numerous points in the story until then she similarly attempts to engage the kids by trying to create a sense of wonder, yet fails each time until money is involved. When she prompts the kids to say what they thought of the store, one of the girls states “ I think….. that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?”. While not all of the kids understand, the narrator has mixed emotions about the lesson she wished she hadn’t learned, yet ends the story on a triumphant note, claiming “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.”
“The Lesson”, driven by the themes of inequality and the importance of education, gives an important and unique perspective on poverty. By showing how the children feel that the system is rigged against them, Bambara gives the reader a kernel of discontent that helps them understand the meaning that the brief trip holds. In the end, the inequality experienced by these children and those like them will be an important political debate in the civil rights movement for years to come.