‘The First Day’ by Edward P. Jones

The First Day by Edward P. Jones, 1982

The magic trick:

Magnifying one woman’s singular experience so that it feels universal

J is for Jones.

I don’t know of a story that better captures the perils of this particular parenting experience – the moment of letting go control. Here, we see a mom taking her child to school for the first time. Every detail feels like high stakes. The process of finding the right clipboard for registration causes anxiety for the reader worthy of a spy thriller.

Some of this is part of the universal parental experience, of course. Some of it is specific to this character’s situation. She’s illiterate, for instance. Mostly it’s just something she cares about so much – her baby’s future moving from the controlled environs of home into this unpredictable, scary, foreign world.

And that’s quite a trick on Jones’s part.

The selection:

“Is this where they register for school?” my mother asks a woman at one of the tables.

The woman looks up slowly as if she has heard this question once too often. She nods. She is tiny, almost as small as the girl standing beside her. The woman’s hair is set in a mass of curlers and all of those curlers are made of paper money, here a dollar bill, there a five-dollar bill. The girl’s hair is arrayed in curls, but some of them are beginning to droop and this makes me happy. On the table beside the woman’s pocketbook is a large notebook, worthy of someone in high school, and looking at me looking at the notebook, the girl places her hand possessively on it. In her other hand she holds several pencils with thick crowns of additional erasers.

“These the forms you gotta use?” my mother asks the woman, picking up a few pieces of the paper from the table. “Is this what you have to fill out?”

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