Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day”: Looking at Looking

Techniques tracked:
-appealing to the senses
-turning sense appeal into plot
-looking at looking
-conflict, crisis, resolution

notebook

Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day” is a deceptively simple story that provides us with the rich sensory experience of a little girl’s first day of school, or that which immediately precedes it. The arc of the story actually consists of her wardrobe preparations, then the registration process, and ends with the girl entering her classroom to officially start the school day. Of course, if the story consisted of her breezing through these preparations, it would merely be anecdote; we must hit some hitches for it to qualify as a “story.”

There’s already some tension injected between past and present in the very first line:

On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.

Though we might not realize it yet, the story has basically proclaimed itself in the first line: this will be the beginning of the narrator learning to be ashamed of her mother. The hitches that occur will somehow influence this shame, and after we go through the sensory experience of preparing for school—the smell of hair grease, the pinch of plaited hair, the look and feel of the special shoes and socks and underwear, the details richly observed as this is a special occasion and so they are all unusual, noteworthy—the hitches begin during the registration process. The first hitch is when they’re told the narrator can’t go to school at the one her mother always pointed out and declared her daughter would go to. The past enters the narrative here as the little girl recalls her mother pointing out the school:

For as many Sundays as I can remember, perhaps even Sundays when I was in her womb, my mother has pointed across I Street to Seaton as we come and go to Mt. Carmel. “You gonna go there and learn about the whole world.”

This memory shows not only that this particular location is important to the mother, but that the daughter has observed this importance. The mother has had a vision for her daughter’s future, and the daughter is aware that that vision is being challenged. The second hitch comes when the mother has to ask for help filling out the forms:

“This form. Would you mind helpin me fill it out?”

The woman still seems not to understand.

“I can’t read it. I don’t know how to read or write, and I’m askin you to help me.” My mother looks at me, then looks away. I know almost all of her looks, but this one is brand new to me. “Would you help me, then?”

Jones doesn’t explicitly tell us outright how the little girl’s view of her mother has changed, which would read something along the lines of, “Now I knew my mother couldn’t read.” Instead, the physical details the character observes, the new look, do this work. This character is very observant of looks; just a few sentences later we get:

My mother is now diseased, accord­ing to the girl’s eyes…

The story is about how the mother changes in the daughter’s eyes, and the daughter’s eyes change based on the other eyes she sees: the way she sees changes based on how she sees others seeing things (welcome to the world of peer pressure). Looks continue to be noted as the mother reprimands the daughter for staring at the girl who is staring at the mother who’s asked for help:

“Don’t stare,” my mother says to me. “You know better than that.”

But then, upon the mother’s being introduced to another woman:

She’s to be my teacher, she tells my mother. My mother stares.

Her violating her own dictum so shortly after uttering it shows us that her daughter can’t take everything her mother says at face value, which is exactly the lesson the daughter is learning here. As her child is about to be taken away, this mother’s either losing her self-possession or a hypocrite or both.

As they’re about to part ways, the daughter presses her mother’s lips together, part of a game they have, but the mother doesn’t play along like she usually does, signaling their impending separation: things will no longer be the way they used to. Then, the observation of a couple of critical sensory details occurs at the very end when the narrator’s finally left in the classroom:

I see where she has darned one of her socks the night before. Her shoes make loud sounds in the hall. She passes through the doors and I can still hear the loud sounds of her shoes. And even when the teacher turns me toward the classrooms and I hear what must be the singing and talking of all the children in the world, I can still hear my mother’s footsteps above it all.

At the end, simple physical description has evolved into a description of so much more. When the narrator observes that her mother’s socks are darned, she’s observing a literal seam that stands in for a figurative one: she sees the seams in her mother’s character, the weaknesses—i.e., her inability to read, which opens the door to the question of her other inabilities—that she was not aware of before. She’s specifically observing her mother’s flaws. “The first day” of the title on the surface refers to the first day of school, but is really the first day of something else as well, the first day of having a new understanding of her mother. But while the seeds for the shame from the opening line have been planted, they haven’t bloomed quite yet. That the sound of her mother’s steps is louder than the surrounding children’s voices demonstrates that the mother’s presence is still more powerful to the daughter than the impressions and opinions of her peers (that, or she’s embarrassed by how loud the shoes are). This conclusion doesn’t leave the daughter feeling sorry for her mother after learning her mother can’t read, but rather the opposite—it seems you could read it that she’s implicitly proud her mother has endured the embarrassment of having her weakness exposed for her sake. She’s learned plenty before the school day’s even started.

So, to sum up, the conflict that sets the story in motion is that the daughter needs to go to school. The crisis is that in the course of attempting to do so, the daughter learns her mother can’t read. The resolution is that she’ll go to school, with the implication being that she’ll learn to do what her mother couldn’t, and become ashamed of her mother for it.

-SCR

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