THE SCHOOL by Donald Barthelme

This is tough story. It is short and surreal. It begins, “Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that …that was part of their education, to see how you know, the root systems …and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible.” Then every thing goes wrong.

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


peter griffin said...

very, very confusing to get to the underlying deep meaning of this story!! i'm trying to find other people's analysis of it to make me better understand the story. besides what you have already mentioned in your last paragraph, i see nothing deeper.

TrueNone13 said...

Hm, believe me, I feel your trouble. I too like the short story very much, but I really wander what Barthelme is trying to say. I do have an idea, though I'm not sure how accurate it may be.

The children are actually a representation of adults in society, not necessarily elders, but the primary groups, say 20s to 40s, that actually commit most of the more routine actions of life. The teachers are a representation of perhaps the elders in society or those considered to be "in charge". That seems to be the idea for character representation.

The individual deaths represent different things. For example, the death of the orange trees mimics the ruin of society's hard, caring work. Why? Well, the elders offer answers that place the blame mostly on the world itself, the setting, ignoring the possibility that it may have been faulty tending. Thus, even when society tries to take care of the enviroment, it rarely works. The death of the animals (except for the dog) could be the same.

The death of the puppy, Edgar, may mirror the loss of a child by some parents or perhaps some other cheap thrill. It's fun and begs attention, yet it still seems to go awry.

The death of the Korean boy could represent the seeming futility in trying to save mankind, trying to protect neighbors. Even though the children do everything they're supposed to (which, unmentioned, is still never enough), the boy dies.

The final turn at the end shows that, eventually, people start to wonder why. They want to know the more important things in life. They want to know why, no matter their effort, life seems to decay and turn to ash. They want to know what is beyond themselves and why they bother. Thus, they ask about the happenings beyond death. The elder offers no real answer, convincing the children that death seems more powerful, more ultimate than life. Again, the elder is unable to answer. The children begin this long exposition showing that, after a while, people really wonder and contemplate. Never does the teacher really have an answer.

Finally, the children ask the professor to demonstrate affection and love with the assistant. This shows that, even though society inevitably asks for answers, they drown in their fear and look for cheap, easy answers and displays. Unable to satisfy, the elder tries to comply.

Alernatively, this shows that society wants not a cheap, momentary distraction but some real sign of reassurance, a sign that love and generosity are in fact worth something, are valued. They want to see the professor make love not to understand the mechanics of intercourse but to reaffirm that love in of itself is worth the dissapointment.

Of course, the professor never really answers or offers anything. Instead, a new pet is brought forward. Thus, society endlessly repeats the cycle.

What do you think?

Aaron M. Wilson said...

I really like your ideas. Thank you for taking the time to expound so throughly on The School. Your critical thinking skills are exceptional.

The School is the no. 1 reason people visit my site. I've also had several people email for a second post, which I did 02/03/08.

Check it out!


ennyone said...

George Saunders wrote a great essay about "The School" on his latest book "the Braindead Megaphone."

Dudley Dawson said...

In your efforts to solve its meaning i think you might be searching a bit too hard. It's a very straightforward representation of life, the specifics are incidental vehicles. The tragedies that befall this class are not in fact tragedies and they are by no means limited to or caused by this class. They are merely the unavoidable results of living on this planet. Every effort, no matter how ardent or coordinated is doomed to end in failure so long as the participants have it in their head that long term, eternal success is possible. Things die. Things go horribly wrong. To rage against this is to forever fail. To search for a meaning or explanation for this is to forever be confused and afraid. All we can do is move on and try again. And seek comfort in the love and human tenderness we are capable of showing to one another (the teacher to his assistant). That is all the absolute meaning we can get from life. It ends- and it will seem cold and brutal as long as we go on expecting otherwise. We must hope and try eternally and we must love and show compassion to everyone always and forever and we will never never fail. And we must not allow past defeats (or in this case deaths) to dissuade us from future attempts. To focus on the negative is boring and obvious. Far cooler is to place our hopes forever in that next gerbil. Brilliant work Donald.

Aaron M. Wilson said...

Thank you for your comments. Very well thought out!


and_starlight_and said...

Guys, you're totally killing the satirical humor of the story.