Thursday, March 30, 2017

"The First Day" (1992)

Read story by Edward P. Jones online.

This story by Edward P. Jones is short enough that it bears mentioning—five printed pages, which probably makes it longer than a short short, but still notably compact. It takes the form of a somewhat elliptical reminiscence, told first-person, about a first day of kindergarten. Jones is an African-American, and many of his characters are identifiably so as well, but it's a universal experience and colorblind as related here in many ways. Yet it is also specifically about African-American experience. The narrator is an older girl or more likely a young woman, remembering. It's best on the complicated relationship between a child and parent, the turbulence of which is revealed here in the first sentence: "On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother ... " The reasons for that shame don't have to be spelled out, because it's part of adolescent experience, but we see the 5-year-old seeing her mother in acute ways. Her mother has to ask for help filling out forms because she can't read or write. She takes her daughter to the wrong school—she has no sense for how school systems operate. She just shows up with her child and asks abrupt questions. The story even has a kind of muzzy sentimental flavor. I found myself thinking back to my own first day of school as I read this, which was rather different, having to take a bus for the first time and such. It was raining. But the feeling of time moving irrevocably on, the feeling of being plunged into something new—new sights, new sounds, new smells, new people—are strong in this story. Her mother is also a person to be feared, we learn, capable of lashing out at things she feels are wrong. There's an intriguing description of people here that is repeated, describing them as "out of the advertisements in Ebony." It's one place where race intrudes a little on the universal experience. I suspect, in some measure, that's intentional, both the specificity and the wider common experience. It's a very American scene and setting, a public school in a large city. I think it has no particular indictments to make—it's much less about race and much more about a parent and child and the transitions of their relationship. The specificity is about the fundamentals of short story writing. The concrete details tell. Just so, the parting of the two, the clumping of her mother's footsteps as she leaves the building and goes out of sight, is just right.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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