Toni Cade Bambara

The Lesson

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The Lesson Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 22-page guide for the short story “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Trap of Consumerism and Capitalism and Communication Failures Between Children and Adults.

“The Lesson” is a short story by Toni Cade Bambara. It appears in her story collection Gorilla, My Love, first published in 1960. It was also anthologized in the 1972 edition of Best American Short Stories.

“The Lesson” is narrated by an unnamed black girl who lives in a poor New York City neighborhood. She lives with her Aunt Gretchen, her cousin Sugar—who is also her best friend—and their younger cousin Junior. All of their mothers live on their own in a nearby apartment: “ while our mothers were in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time” (88). The whole extended family moved to New York together from the South some years ago and “spread out gradual to breathe” (87) after first having shared a single apartment.

The narrator’s focus, however, is not on her own family but rather on Miss Moore, her bossy and irritating neighbor. Miss Moore, “the only woman on the block with no first name” (87), prides herself on her college education and upward mobility, and she appoints herself the guardian and teacher of all the children around her. While the children’s parents make fun of Miss Moore behind her back, they are deferential to her face and quick to hand their children over to her for various educational outings.

The central event in the story is one such educational outing. Miss Moore tells the narrator, Sugar, and a group of other neighborhood children that she intends to teach them a lesson about money, and she hails two cabs for all of them, not telling any of them where they are headed. She gives the narrator $5 beforehand and tells her to calculate the cab fare. When the cab pulls up in front of a Fifth Avenue toy store, the narrator pays the cabbie but keeps the tip for herself, judging the cabbie to have been rude to them. She also keeps the remaining $4 in her pocket because Miss Moore does not ask for her money back.

The children and Miss Moore first look in the window of the toy store, Miss Moore interrogating them about what toys they find desirable, how much they imagine that these toys might cost, and how they think they could earn the money to buy them. The children are amazed by the exorbitant prices of the toys and veer between envy and incredulity in their reactions. They look at a microscope that costs $300, an ugly paperweight that costs $480, and a small wooden sailboat that costs $1,000. While the narrator finds the sailboat “magnificent,” she also judges it to be foolish and impractical: “just big enough to maybe sail two kittens across the pond if you strap them to the posts tight” (91-92).

While the children have kept up a barrage of saucy talk outside of the store, they find themselves frightened and silenced upon going into the store. The only one among them who feigns assurance is a girl named Mercedes, who is the most proper and ladylike of all of them. The narrator is aware of the other customers in the store looking at them, and she compares the atmosphere in the store to the atmosphere in a church service that she and Sugar once crashed, intending to disrupt the service with pranks: “But once we got in there and everything so hushed and holy and the candles and the bow-in and the handkerchiefs on all the drooping heads, I just couldn’t go through with the plan” (93).

The children wander silently through the store for a while, with Miss Moore watching them and gauging their reactions. The narrator is aware of Miss Moore’s expectant eyes on her but refuses to rise…

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