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Short Stories > "The First Day" by Edward P. Jones

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message 1: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments Edward P. Jones' short story "The First Day" is up for discussion today. You can find it in our anthology, The Art of the Story An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories on page 349. It is also included in Jones' collection entitled Lost in the City

The following is some biographical information regarding Jones taken from Barnes&

Edward P. Jones grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother worked as a dishwasher and hotel maid to support Jones and his brother and sister. Though she couldn't read or write herself, Jones's mother encouraged her son to study, and eventually a Jesuit priest who knew Jones suggested he apply for a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, Jones discovered the odd fact that in the antebellum South, there had been free black people who owned black slaves.
"It was a shock that there were black people who would take part in a system like that," he later told a Boston Globe interviewer. "Why didn't they know better?" That question stayed with Jones for more than 20 years and would eventually inspire his first novel, The Known World.

After graduating from Holy Cross with a degree in English, Jones moved back to Washington, D.C., and began writing short stories, aiming to create a portrait of his city in the mode of James Joyce's Dubliners. He attended writing seminars, then earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Virginia, but he felt that neither writing nor teaching was a reliable enough source of income. He took a day job as a business writer for an Arlington, Virgina, nonprofit, and held it for almost 19 years -- during which he published his first short-story collection, Lost in the City, which was nominated for a National Book Award. He also began planning his first novel, composing and revising chapters entirely in his head. Jones had just taken a five-week vacation to start writing the book when he found out he was being laid off, so he lived on severance pay and unemployment during the few months it took him to finish his first draft.

The Known World was published in 2003, 11 years after Lost in the City. "With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times Book Review. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post Book World called the book "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years."

message 2: by Barbara (last edited Oct 18, 2009 12:35PM) (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments I read and liked Edward P. Jones novel, The Known World. However, I then read many of the stories in his collection All Aunt Hagar's Children Stories and realized that I was much more a fan of his short stories. I didn't even know that he had another collection and am now adding Lost in the City: Stories to my towering TBR list and it will move toward the top.

"The First Day" has that quality that I most admire in a good short story, selecting the perfect few details that will present a little world in a few pages. I loved that he devoted so many lines to the description of the hair braiding. It was essential. And, the pride and strength of the mother is achingly portrayed in the process of registering her daughter for school, all of those important papers ready if the system needs them.

As a teacher myself in a low income area, I watch the bravery of parents who are determined that their child will get access to the educational tools that they hope will help them escape their parents' fate. Coming in to the school building itself is often returning to the "scene of the crime" if they were unhappy in school. But, they do it anyway. In this case, I'm guessing that this mother didn't even get the chance to try as a child. But, Jones conveys that bravery and determination without pathos.

Don't miss this one!

message 3: by Mary Anne (new)

Mary Anne | 1429 comments Since I own Lost in the City, I reread the story tonight.

Your word "achingly" is spot on. How many of us parents have felt the anxiety of dropping your child at their first school? How hopeful we are for our child. But that anxiety and hope can be turned against us with a few differences.

What would it be like if you were told that you were at the wrong school? And when you got to the right place, you couldn't fill out the forms like the other parents because you couldn't read or write?

When you are 5, your love for your mother is unequivocal. But if something happens that makes you realize that there is something wrong with your mother, that she has a "disease", that love gets diminished in some way.

Jones is a terrific writer. In each of the stories in this book, the reader truly feels the loss.

message 4: by Beej (new)

Beej | 928 comments Oh Barbara, Jones is such a good writer. I loved 'A Known World,' especially since I lived in Virginia still when I read it. I haven't read any of his short stories yet. I'll rectify that in about an hour.

message 5: by Beej (last edited Oct 19, 2009 08:55AM) (new)

Beej | 928 comments First, I have to say, this is such a great story, but I thought something was a little 'off.' That 'something' was that Jones wrote this from the perspective of a female, and worse, he wrote it that way in the first person, so I felt a little betrayed. Why did he do that? Was it because he wanted to detach himself or, rather, distance himself a little from this experience, especially since his own mother was illiterate? This really confused me. However, the story is so poignant, so bittersweet, so heart touching.

I agree with Barb about the importance of the addition of the braiding of this child's hair. It shows such a great desire to have this child set off on the right foot on her first day of school. I was also touched by the inclusion of the child's observation that her mother had darned the hole in her sock that morning. Oh, what detail! What a tremendous and telling insight into this mother and her hopes and dreams for her child.

I can't decide if this is the child's story or the mother's, but I'm leaning toward the mother's. Maybe this is why it was written in the first person narrative of a female.

'The First Day..' at first I thought it meant the first day of school. and I suppose it does. But I think, in the mother's mind at least, it's more than that. It's her child's first day, her first step, in breaking a cycle and creating a better life than her mother had.

Come to think of it, I love this little nugget of gold.

message 6: by Mary Anne (new)

Mary Anne | 1429 comments Beej, most of the stories in Lost in the City are like that, i.e. a variety of narrators and/or points of view.

message 7: by Beej (new)

Beej | 928 comments Hmm. Interesting. So its nothing to read special meaning into.

Thanks MAP.

message 8: by Barbara (last edited Oct 20, 2009 06:22PM) (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments MAP, I don't see Lost in the City being advertised much. Did you find it after you read The Known World?

Beej, I thought one of the triumphs of the story was his success in conveying a female, and even more a child's, first person point of view. It didn't ring false at all to me. Did it to you?

message 9: by Beej (last edited Oct 20, 2009 06:43PM) (new)

Beej | 928 comments Not at all! I don'r know why it affected me the way it did. I suppose it just surprised me. You know, it might have been because he DID do it so well!

I really liked this story a lot. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed his writing.

Why do you think it meant so much to the mother that her daughter attend the school across from the Baptist church? At first, I wondered if it was a segregation type of thing but, no, both schools (I gathered) were 'Black' schools. Do you think the mother just didn't know any better about districts etc?

message 10: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments I thought that she knew so little about schools that she wanted to link it to the one institution she trusted, her church. And, I suppose that it could have been spoken well of there. I wonder if there is some other reason that we are missing.

message 11: by Mary Anne (new)

Mary Anne | 1429 comments Yes, Barbara, I was so impressed with Jones after reading The Known World that I just had to read something else by him. So I went on Amazon and got LITC. I have to say that it was not my favorite book. I felt that there was a certain sameness in many of the stories. And I freely admit that I don't read as many short story collections as you, so this may be my unschooled self speaking here. But after about 10 stories, I just wanted to move on.

On the positive side, one thing I noticed is that he often has characters in the stories who are just barely mentioned, but who I would love to know more about. In this story, it was Miss Mary and Miss Blondelle. They are just thrown in so that the incident of the mother's slap can be brought up, but I want them to have their own story!

And how about that slap? Just in that one, brief episode, we learn about the fierce pride this woman has.

As for the school mix-up, someone who is not sophisticated in life experiences is not likely to understand jurisdictions and feeder patterns. This woman knows what she knows. Since she is comfortable at that church, it gives her comfort to think of her child going to school in the same area. And heaven knows there is little else about school that gives her comfort.

message 12: by Sheila (new)

Sheila | 1211 comments I’d never heard of this author at all and having read the story I’m thinking “nice”, but is that all? No, it is leaving me with numerous unanswered questions.

I’m thinking does he translate well across to the UK? In one sense, I think he really does capture the little girl’s thoughts well, I can believe the narrator is female, her preoccupations with her dress, her hair, her mother’s perfume etc.

Is this story meant to be contemporary? I can’t tell. There is nothing in it that I can hear which sets the period – it could be today, or 1940s. Perhaps the use of the words “barrette” and the product name “Dixie Peach”, perhaps if I knew when Ebony magazine started, but I can’t tell. Does it matter? Well it matters because I’m trying to work out when it is set in order to reckon up how the mother can’t read and write at all. Yes I know there are lots of folks who read and write very poorly today, but very few who would be the age of a 5 year old's mother who can’t at all.

Also I’m trying to work out what the two neighbours were being called – was this slur sexual, racial or occupational? I can’t tell. Does it matter? Well if it is occupational it explains the mother’s preoccupation with her marriage and her daughter’s birth and baptism certificates, to show she is no hooker’s illegitimate child. I can’t see any lesbian comment fitting in anywhere else, so that leaves the racial one. So does the story hinge on a typically American preoccupation with race? Because the author is a man of colour and to me the way the women are referred to and the mother being a member of the Baptist church, these all make me think this family is. I can’t tell from the street references whether there is a colour divide as well as economic divide between the areas served by Seaton Elementary and Walker-Jones.

So why does all this concern me? Well it is because if I treat this as the daughter’s story then I can transfer it anywhere. Although I can’t actually recall my own first day at school after we got there, and I have never had to leave children at a school on their first day, I think the daughter’s story can be related to by anyone. If it is the story of the mother, even if it is told through the daughter’s memory eyes later on, then I need to have some more setting for it to make it feel right and hang together.

So on one level I am left nicely satisfied by this story, but that’s all: on the other, I am left wondering what the situation really was – was the deprivation racial or economic or both?

message 13: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7663 comments The time seemed to me to be the fifties or sixties. Why? I don't know. Maybe because I think it was Jones telling about a time in his life that he remembered well--his own childhood. His writing reminds me a bit of Ishiguro's. Simple, restrained, with a lot of hidden meaning.

message 14: by Sheila (new)

Sheila | 1211 comments Sherry,
I had the same thoughts - Gardenia was a popular scent then and there was something in his description of the little girls shoes and socks - patent leather was popular inthe late sixties here - although I felt the use of the word "underwear" placed it more modern.

message 15: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7663 comments We said "underwear" then. I remember it clearly. You always had to make sure it was clean in case of some catastrophe. Mothers didn't want to appear slovenly, even to emergency room personnel.

message 16: by Beej (last edited Oct 22, 2009 10:28AM) (new)

Beej | 928 comments Sheila, your post opened up a lot of questions for me. I don't even know how to ask except to just go ahead and ask. Did England have racial segregation within your schools? I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I don't know anything about this except for my own country.

message 17: by Sheila (last edited Oct 22, 2009 10:42AM) (new)

Sheila | 1211 comments Beej,

No. We've never had forced segration int he way the US has had. But we have all sorts of other stuff. In Scotland when I was growing up we had religious segregation with Catholic and Protestant kids going to different schools. In the village I grew up in everyone went to the one village primary school until I was in my early teens when a family moved into the village who did not go to the same set of secondary schools. The next village to us was more mixed with both catholic and protestant families and both primary schools.
Nowadays, there's no racial segration per se but what we do have is schools which are predominantly made up of children whose first language is not English. But it is purely a question of location, immigration, and economics not a question of forced segregation.

message 18: by Stephen (last edited Oct 22, 2009 05:09PM) (new)

Stephen (Capodistria) This is a little gem. Very touching. I am as enthusiastic about it as the most enthusiastic of the lot of you. I need not say more in that general sense, I guess.

Sheila, I put it in the fifties without even thinking about it for reasons that I cannot explain. In fact as I was reading it, there was no question in my mind. It was only when I came here and read the postings that I started to question my own judgment in that regard. Perhaps the only reason I felt that way is the fact that my own first day at school was in the early fifties.

There was no question in my mind either that the other child called Miss Mary and Miss Blondelle "whores."

* * * * * *

There is one sentence that troubled me greatly. I am now absolutely convinced that it is a typographical error. It is the beginning sentence of the third paragraph on page 350. It says,

My mother shakes her vigorously.

The way the type was set, there is only one way to interpret that. Mother was shaking the representative of Seaton Elementary who is turning them away. I read it and read it and read it again. That simply cannot be possible in the context. The type should have been set so that the sentence reads,

My mother shakes her head vigorously.

* * * * * *

That concluding paragraph truly did get to me emotionally when mother's lips are trembling and then this particularly:

I touch her lips and press them together. It is an old, old game between us.

Obviously, mother's lips have trembled several times before, probably all of them when and after the father left.

message 19: by Mary Anne (new)

Mary Anne | 1429 comments I thought the word used was the "n word". Children are known to use the word among themselves, but it would be highly inappropriate to use it toward an adult.

I also thought this was the 50s. Something about the socks made me feel that way. We would need an authority on 1950s DC (where's Mina?) to tell us whether crossing New York Avenue was crossing the great divide into white school territory. I grew up in suburban, white Maryland, just 10 miles away, but it might as well have been 1,000 miles away. My grandmother and my parents are buried quite close to the locale of this story, however, so I can picture this walk to school. I kept wondering, having crossed New York Avenue twice, weren't they going to be late for school when they finally got to the correct place? But no one seemed to care about that. Papers were on the floor, and things seemed disorganized. It's a wonder that the mother persevered.

message 20: by Stephen (new)

Stephen (Capodistria) You certainly could be right about the word, MAP. I simply lit on my word because the subjects happened to be two women.

Makes no difference for the story.

message 21: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9401 comments I agree with MAP on the word. I'm not as thrilled with this story as many of you are. If I had read it back in the '50s, (I graduated from high school in 1953, not even realizing there was such a thing as segregated schools in other parts of the country) I think I would have loved it. Today, I find it a little naively presented. That said, though, I think it goes beyond the surface issues it espouses, important as they are. It also speaks to the moment that comes to all of us, when we see our parents not as our omnipotent parents, but as flawed humans in the world.

message 22: by Erin (new)

Erin (ErinSkelly) | 780 comments Sherry wrote: "We said "underwear" then. I remember it clearly. You always had to make sure it was clean in case of some catastrophe. Mothers didn't want to appear slovenly, even to emergency room personnel."

I'm not following this thread b/c I didn't read the book, but I saw this post in the daily e-mail digest I receive. Sherry, you crack me up! I know it's true, but it's also hilarious!

message 23: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7663 comments Glad to be of service, Erin. I do my best.

message 24: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments I wonder if mothers say that anymore (clean underwear in case of a visit to the emergency room). I certainly didn't. But, everyone who is close to my age heard that warning as a child.

message 25: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 856 comments Hi, everyone! I hate that I missed this discussion - Edward P. Jones is my favorite writer - but I haven't been in great health this fall, and posting has been hard, analysis harder. I'm doing better and should be back to my opinionated self soon.

I did want to make a couple of quick comments. Jones is just about my age and he reflects the DC in which I grew up perfectly. Ruth, this is one of his shorter stories - I overwhelmingly recommend the first and last stories in All Aunt Hagar's Children . That collection as a whole is really superb. This is undoubtedly set in the late '50s, but race shouldn't have been the issue with the two schools - I suspect that it was more of a class issue. DC, even in the '50s, had lots of division between upwardly mobile black folks and those who were less able to progress for educational, familial, and other reasons. Two public elementary schools could be close together physically, with similar populations racially, but with very different cultures.

And Steve is right - the word had to be "whore" or one of its synonyms. A child wouldn't use the "n" word to refer to an adult, even if he or she used it to insult another child.

All of the details in this story are perfect. Big recommendation for both of his SS collections, especially "Aunt Hagar". I'm wiped out now - I hope that was coherent! Be back soon.

message 26: by Barbara (last edited Nov 12, 2009 05:46PM) (new)

Barbara | 5951 comments Oh, Mina, I'm sorry to hear that your health has been poor, but I'm glad to see you back here. Thanks for the guidelines. I've been told before that Jones describes Washington DC perfectly. And, after reading All Aunt Hagar's Children, I decided that he's an even better short story writer than he is a novelist. Your note makes me want to go back for a reread, something that I seldom do.

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Books mentioned in this topic

Lost In The City (other topics)
The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories (other topics)
All Aunt Hagar's Children: Stories (other topics)
The Known World (other topics)