A list of what dies in this story: 30 orange trees, all the snakes, the herb garden, the gerbils, the puppy named Edgar, a salamander, tropical fish, a Korean orphan, parents, lots of grandparents, Matthew Wein, Tony Mavrogordo, and Billy Brandt’s father.
To ward the end of the story, for me the upside down moment, perhaps the ‘message,’ the author writes: “One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Toney, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? and I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of--”
Wow. Holy crap, I never want this class of children. Besides the obvious curse that surrounds this group, they are all wise beyond their age.
“Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.” This is how it ends, but you just know that whatever walked through the door, gerbil, dog, boy or girl, it was a goner.
There are few stories that I’m just not able to follow. This is one of them. The language and rhythm is great. It is a short fun read that made me laugh and go, “uh, what was that!” But I’m just not able to unpack the meaning. Sure it is about death, and responsibility, growing up, loss of innocence, etc; but there is something more going on in this story that I can’t quite grasp.
Read it! What do you think is going on?
Barthelme, Donald. “The School.” Sixty Stories. New York: Penguin, 2005. p. 304 -307