THE SCHOOL by Donald Barthelme is my number one post on The Soulless Machine Review. My first review was part of the June 2007 issue. Since then, it has amassed the most traffic on my site. It has also created a lot of mail sent directly to my gmail account, questions about the story’s meaning, pleas for help, and aggravations with my first review’s literary depth.
Clarification: My first review of THE SCHOOL by Donald Barthelme was an attempt to drive traffic to my fledgling site. It worked and failed. It worked in bring people to my site that needed help unwrapping the foil of “The School” to get to the candy (if you will). It failed in that I wanted visitors to leave comments on my blog with their interpretations of the story. Thus my aggravating invitation “Read it! What do you think is going on?” at the end of my post.
Well, okay. You win. Here is a second round review of THE SCHOOL by Donald Barthelme.
When I read a voice like the one narrating this story, I fall in love with it. The language the narrator is using makes me feel like I’m sitting in a bar with friends and one of them is telling me about their day. The voice is personal, conversational, and above all honest. As a writer, I aim for this kind of voice. It is the best of narrations. The voice immediately engages the reader in a dialogue. Just look at how the story opens:
“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.”
In this opening the narrator is addressing the reader by using the pronoun “you.” This grabs the read and wakes him or her up and the reader can only think, ‘who me.’ However, even before the reader is addressed, the first word “Well” brings the reader in by assuming that there was conversation (story) before the reader enters into the picture. This creates a wonderful false sense of immediacy, ‘oh crap, what did I miss?’ and that the reader has some catching up to do.
What is this story about? What does it all mean? (Before I get into my interpretation, I would like to make this one comment. Art, and literature is art, is meant to make you think and reflect. The hope of most artists and writers is that you will be moved to ponder what you have seen or read, ask questions, and have discussions. I’m also very torn over the issue of intent--what did the artist or writer want me to think? On one side, I like to think that there is an underling message that was intended. On the other, art is art and should be valued because it makes us think; and isn’t that more important that what the artist or author intended?)
Okay. I think that “The School” is fundamentally about hope. Yes, HOPE. The kind of hope that is dear to everyone and not just the kind of passive hope that someday things will get better, but hope that comes with sacrifice and through hard work. The kind of hope that can only be felt by getting up everyday and believing that you can make a fundamental difference in the world around you.
Now, this story does not seem be about hope on the surface. It seems to be about a classroom full of kids that have had more than their fair share of adversity and death. Here is 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.
Wow. How can all that happen to one classroom of 30 kids? This class in my opinion is a metaphor for America. We, as decent human beings, know the difference between what is wrong and what is right. We know how to help each other. We know that bad things are happening all the time. However, we are lazy and we really like excitement.
Every time something bad happens in the classroom, every time something dies, it is quickly replaced with the next big thing. I think that this is like our media and entertainment mentality. We don’t want to hear about all the bad stuff, hearing about it might mean that we would have to do something about it. Instead, when something bad happens, show it to us quickly and then bring on “…the new gerbil…”
But what about that section where the students ask their teacher to demonstrate lovemaking with the assistant teacher?
This is also part of the “entertain-me” mentality that plagues our country. We love spectacle. The children of this class have seen so much death that they long to switch the channel. They want something real. They want something to be able to look foreword to as they grow up. However, instead of trying to live in the moment, find meaning in the here and now, or reflect on how they can help others, they asked to be entertained, “We’ve heard so much about it, they said, but we’ve never seen it.” They long, just as America longs, for pure spectacle.
The hope comes into this story, for me at least, when the children say “…we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.” These children have had enough. They know that there has to be more to life than the next new gerbil, but they are having a hard time finding the way, but at least they started to ask, to become afraid.
However, the “…new gerbil waked in. The children cheered wildly.” This is what has happened in this country for the last 7 years. The economy has dived into a recession. Jobs are flooding out of this country at an alarming rate. Homelessness is rising. But, Bush’s administration knew what to do: give the people spectacle, give them a war to distract them, and we can get rich in the meanwhile.
What will you do? The war is old news now, a dead snake. The new gerbil’s name is Economic Stimulus Package. Will you watch or will you fight?
Got Hope? http://www.barackobama.com/
Barthelme, Donald. “The School.” Sixty Stories. New York: Penguin, 2005. p. 304 -307
P.S. There is a little more information on post Donald Barthelme over at one of my favorite blogs, Ashcan Rantings.