This story is narrated by a young girl named Sylvia. It begins shortly after an eccentric woman named Miss Moore moves in on her block. Miss Moore is “black as hell,” and always dresses formally (87). She regularly volunteers to take Sylvia and her cousin Sugar to educational events. Although the adults agree that Miss Moore is odd, they allow the children to go because the opportunities are unique. Sylvia uses the opportunities not to learn, but to take advantage of Miss Moore. One day, while the children are in her care, Miss Moore begins to quiz them on arithmetic. They beg to head to the subway station, where they can get out of the heat and look for cute boys.
Five of the children’s friends – Flyboy, Junebug, Big Butt, Mercedes and Rosie Giraffe - join them on their trip. Miss Moore takes them in a taxi to Fifth Avenue, where they marvel at the wealthy people. The children see a microscope in the window of F.A.O. Schwarz, and clamor for it. They notice an expensive paperweight there, and Miss Moore tries to explain the importance of keeping a tidy work area. Next, the children see a fiberglass sailboat that costs $1,195. They speculate about what could justify such an exorbitant cost, when their own toy sailboats cost less than a dollar.
Miss Moore urges them to go inside the toystore. Sylvia immediately feels uncomfortable there, and remembers a time that she and Sugar planned to run into a Catholic church and make noise. When they got inside, the atmosphere was so holy that they could not go through with it. Sylvia feels annoyed that Miss Moore interrupted their day to bring them here, but consoles herself by keeping the change from the five dollars Miss Moore gave her to pay for the taxi. Miss Moore seems to notice that Sylvia is angry.
When they arrived back in Harlem, Miss Moore asks the children what they thought of F.A.O Schwarz. They are reluctant to comment, but Sugar eventually mentions that the cost of the toy sailboat could feed all six of them for a year. Sylvia steps on her foot, but Miss Moore seems pleased at Sugar's observation. Miss Moore asks the children what this inequality says about society. Sugar replies that “equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough” (95).
Miss Moore asks if anyone else has learned anything; she is looking straight at Sylvia. Sylvia walks away, and she and Sugar race to Hascombs to buy cake with the money left over from the taxi. Sylvia plans to think about this day when she has some quiet time, and does not mind when Sugar runs ahead of her. She merely thinks to herself that “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (96).
“The Lesson” is among Bambara’s best-known stories, and it combines her focus on social justice with her interest in telling stories about children maturing. One of the most provocative elements of this story is Sylvia’s opaque response to Miss Moore’s lesson. Although the visit to F.A.O. Schwarz angers her, she does not understand why, and cannot decide whether to direct that anger at Miss Moore, at Sugar, or at white people. Yet despite her initially rebellious response to the excursion, Sylvia’s chance to witness the vast disparity between rich and poor seems to inspire her to work harder; at the end, she thinks to herself that “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (96). In other words, the injustice has helped her focus her anger.
Like she does in “Raymond’s Run,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,” Bambara makes it very clear that this story takes place during the summer. She may do this because in New York City, many middle- and upper-class residents leave town during the summer. This highlights income disparities because most of the city’s population dwindles to those who cannot afford to leave (Cross).
Although Miss Moore focuses on the vast gap between the wealth of New York’s elite and the poverty of their neighbors, Bambara points out that economic disparities exist even within the narrator’s own group of friends. Although none of the children can afford the toys in F.A.O. Schwarz, there is actually some diversity in their incomes. We can discern that Mercedes is relatively well off both through the way she describes her bedroom and stationary, and because she hopes to return to F.A.O. Schwarz on her birthday. Flyboy, meanwhile, is homeless. Sylvia and Sugar seem to represent the middle of the sample.
Interestingly, the children seem to resent those with different income levels than themselves, regardless of whether that person is of higher or lower class. For example, they berate Mercedes when she talks about her stationery, and push her out of their circle when she talks about returning to the store. However, they also become irritated at the way that Flyboy frequently mentions the fact that he is homeless. This persistent animosity, combined with everyone’s distrust of Miss Moore, speaks to the insularity of their community, and a general distrust of foreigners. People find ways to separate themselves, whether by race, income, or geography.
The questions Miss Moore asks the children at the end of the story are overtly political, and Sylvia hints that her excursions often have a political subtext. This is part of what makes her strange to them. Many stories in this collection feature a character who encourages Harlem residents to advocate for better conditions for themselves. Examples of this include Miss Ruby in “Playin with Punjab,” Betty Butler in “Talkin Bout Sonny,” and less prominently, the community center in “The Hammer Man.” There is a similar subplot in “My Man Bovanne,” in which the strongly politicized younger characters try to recruit others in their neighborhood to vote in a local election. In that story, the older narrator is skeptical about the younger generation’s claims about black empowerment and identity. It is a similarly instinctive mistrust as that which Sylvia and others have of Miss Moore. In a neighborhood where hopelessness is taken somewhat for granted, the figure preaching hope draws suspicion.
In “The Lesson,” Bambara seems to endorse Miss Moore’s opinion that economic inequality is symptomatic of a flawed society. However, the lesson does not arise organically from the children’s experiences – rather, it comes from a character who is very different from the other adults the children know, and who is considered strange in the neighborhood. In other words, it has to be forced down their throats. This explains why a child, especially a rebellious one like Sylvia, is resistant to the lesson. However, the pervasive truth of it lingers, and Bambara suggests that having seen the extent of inequality will not soon fade from this observant girl's consciousness. Education and awareness might be hard, but they are necessary.