Experience is the Key to Knowledge
Children tend not to be naturally aware of inequality; they must come to this knowledge through experiences. The Lesson, by Toni Cade Bambara, relates one such coming of age in the experiences of a group of New York City children who pay a visit to F.A.O. Schwartz, a famous, upscale toy store.
The character Miss Moore introduces the facts of social inequality to the distracted group of city kids, of whom Sylvia, the main character, is the most cynical. Flyboy, Fat Butt, June bug, Sugar, Rosie, Sylvia and the rest think of Miss Moore as an unsolicited educator, and Sylvia would rather be doing anything else than listening to her. The conflict between Miss Moore this nappy -head bitch and her goddamn college degree ( 925; all pages references are to the class text, Thinking and Writing about Literature: A Text and Anthology, 2nd ed.) and Sylvia, represents more than the ordinary dislike of authority by an adolescent. Sylvia has her own perception of the way things work, her own world that she does not like to have invaded by the prying questions of Miss Moore. Sylvia knows in the back of her mind that she is poor, but it never bothers her until she sees her disadvantages in blinding contrast with the luxuries of the wealthy. As Miss Moore introduces her to the world of the rich, Sylvia attributes shame to poverty. Money ain t divided up right in this country (927). The lesson of the story, is now questioned by Sylvia.
On the way to F.A.O. Schwarz store, when Sylvia devises a plan to escape from Miss Moore s educational trip: I say we oughta get to the subway cause it s cooler and besides we might meet some cute boys (926). By occupying her mind with what she would rather be doing, Sylvia creates refuge, where she can hide from the uncomfortable situations she encounters. As soon as she doesn’t like her circumstance, in this case a taxi cab ride, she counters it with an impulsive whim: I m tired of this and say so. And would much rather snatch Sugar and go to the Sunset and terrorize the West Indian kids (926).
On the way to the toy store the children declare which toys they are going to buy when they arrive at the store, they know they can t afford them, but they don t seem to think they d be off by much. As the once brave, proud and strong children arrive at the door to the toy store they pause. None wanting to go first. They seem to realize they don t belong.
Sylvia resists acknowledging the foreign world of wealth Miss Moore introduces her to at the toy store. Sylvia struggles with the new class-consciousness that is surfacing in her by attacking the values of high-end consumerism. While Sugar, Rosie, and Big Butt are having fun and asking questions, Sylvia is disturbed by what she sees in the toy store. As the kids press close to the windows from outside on the street, each one points out something that interests him or her in the toys. Sylvia can t figure out why the toys cost so much money. When she looks at the glass paper weight, she doesn’t understand what is its, much less why it costs hundreds of dollars: My eyes tell me it s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different colored inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put in an oven or something, But for $480 it don’t make sense. (927). In her opinion, the toys she sees in the store cost too much, and for the reasons she can t explain, this experience antagonizes her. Sylvia looks at a sailboat that costs $1,195 and can t believe how expensive it is. The prices are more than she can make sense out of. Who d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents (928)? Sylvia compares all the expensive toys to what she has, and the comparison furthers her anger. She criticizes the rationale behind paying that much for a toy sailboat that she could make herself for under fifty cents. By finding fault in the in rich lifestyle, Sylvia contrasts it with her own, thereby alienating herself from it.
Sylvia comprehends how she is alienated from the wealth she sees by comparing her own poverty with uninhibited consumerism. When she imagines herself asking her mother for one of the toys in F.A.O. Schwarz, she contrasts wealth with her personal experience and can see the dissimilarity more clearly. Sylvia knows that if she went to her mom asking for the thirty-five dollar birthday clown, her mother wouldn’t even take her seriously: You wanna who that costs what, she d say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head. (929). For Sylvia s family, the thirty-five dollars would pay for necessities for the whole family, not just one birthday gift. The idea that someone else actually ahs enough money to spend so liberally makes Sylvia consider uncomfortable questions: Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain t in on it (929)? Sylvia confronts her poverty because she is faced with tangible evidence of wealth to which she is not privileged. The toy store has shaken her from the denial of the part we all poor and live in the slums, which I don’t feature. (308). Miss Moore s lesson on social inequality is alarming, imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family (930). Yet, Sylvia doesn t want to contemplate it. Before Sylvia sees the toys at the toy store, she doesn t consider the lesson because she s never acknowledged or seen the luxury afforded by wealth, thus never facing her own poverty.
As Sylvia encounters the material wealth at the toy store, her anger begins to cover up for her increasing feelings of envy. Sylvia takes her anger out on others to guard herself from her new thoughts and feelings: Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I m jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth (929). Sylvia is hiding her envy of wealth with the anger. She doesn’t want to admit to herself that she is jealous of the kind of people who afford such toys. Sylvia tries her best to not face the feeling of desolation that has been brought on upon her visit to the toy store.
Sylvia s tenacious attitude towards the economic diversity is also seen when the children speak of their desks at home. Don t you have a calendar and pencil case and a blotter and a letter-opener on your desk at home where you do your homework (927)? I don t even have a desk, say Junebug (927). I do, says Mercedes (927). I have a box of stationery on my desk and a picture of my cat. My godmother bought the stationery and the desk. There s a big rose on each sheet and the envelopes smell like roses (927). Who wants to know about your smelly-ass stationary, say Rosie Giraffe for I can get my two cents in (927). Everything seems fine until there is competition. Whether on a large scale like the experience at the toy store or a small scale, amongst the children and their desks, inequalities are there.
Sylvia s response to her new awareness of social inequality is retaliation. She mocks and ridicules the other characters in the story that are dabbling with the new world , as she tries to resist it. She feels threatened by anything that elevates her awareness of her poverty. Sylvia even states, I m mad, but I won t give her that satisfaction (929). Even though Sylvia does not want to give Miss Moore the satisfaction, she begins to think what her future holds for her, and she learned very well the Lesson Miss Moore is trying to teach them all.