“The School” is a little gem of a short-short story by Donald Barthelme. Every word is dedicated toward moving the story forward and holding the reader spellbound. Economy of words and eloquent punctuation are hallmarks of this remarkable work. An examination of the author and his innovative style, along with a close look at the specific phraseology, point of view and order of events, leads to an appreciation of how each element works together to accomplish Barthelme’s surprising and certainly mystifying conclusion.
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From the beginning, in the very first paragraph, Barthelme engages the reader by using the narrator, the teacher’s story, jumping right into the time that 30 kids planted trees to teach them about nature’s way with root systems, growth and so on. Each planted their “own little tree” and they all died and became “little brown sticks.” The word, little, here lends a quality of
vulnerability and is altogether depressing when the reader pictures 30 children mourning the loss of their little trees. There is a weak effort to explain the dead trees, but the teacher moves on to explain how, before the trees, all the snakes died when the boiler was off for four days because of a strike. Apparently, the kids understood strikes, and “they weren’t too disturbed” (Barnard 491). Perhaps they were not too disturbed because they were snakes.
The teacher continues to recount the deaths in the classroom, like the herbsâ€¦probably because of overwatering, as young people are likely to do with plants. He gives purpose to the herbal death by admitting that at least the children learned not to overwater, something the reader can understand, but still seems a rather cynical comment. But the elegy’s rhythm gathers speed as the reader learns about how, not long before, “the gerbils had died, and the white mice had died, and the salamander” (Barnard 491). Suddenly, a long term pattern is established. But after all those deaths, Barthelme jolts the reader by having the teacher find another lesson for the children. Apparently, “now they know not to carry them around in plastic bags” (Barnard 491). The reader cannot help but laugh at the dark humor. It is a bit of comic relief in mid-tragedy.
Continuing, there was the expected death of the tropical fish. The teacher admits “everyone knows tropical fish will dieâ€¦it happens every year. After all, the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point,” and even though it is tragic, the lesson plan left him no choice other than to expose the children to the inevitable (Barnard 491). Barthelme lets the teacher off the hook by having him blame the lesson plan. The reader readily comprehends that the easily laid blame, while giving a bit of levity here, also holds a deeper meaning for American culture in its waning dedication to personal responsibility as a tenet.
Next there comes the puppy. The reader cannot help but gasp, knowing that another death is, by now, considered inevitable. The story is becoming surreal as deaths are escalating from plants, to cold-blooded creatures, to small furry rodents, and now a puppy. The kids name the puppy Edgar, after the teacher, and had great fun making a little house for it. Again, the endearing use of the word little to describe the house and how apparently persistent the children are in caring for yet another animal, despite the obvious risk of loss. The reader is invested but knows the joy is going to end badly, as it always does. Barthelme takes you up and lets you down over and over again, yet always seems to add some dry, sarcastic and all too human comment that makes the reader chuckle.
When the Korean orphan is adopted by the class, it becomes even more serious for the reader. What seems like a curse will now affect a human. The story predictably escalates again with ever more dire consequences. Although the children are encouraged to try another child, the teacher says “we didn’t have the heart” (Barnard 492). At this point, the teacher thinks the kids “feel that maybe there was something wrong with the school. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the school, particularly” (Barnard 492). The use of the comma makes the reader pause, and the word particularly is interesting because it makes the reader wonder what the teacher is not saying. The statement describing this incredible string of events as “a run of bad luck” is an understatement, at the very least (Barnard 492). The reader now learns of the unprecedented number of peopleâ€¦ parents, as a matter of fact, ten altogether, die in an assortment of ways. There is also the “usual heavy mortality rate among grandparents or maybe it was heavier this year,” which would not surprise the reader (Barnard). “And finally the
Tragedy” (Barnard 492). At this point, the reader is totally absorbed in the surreal string of deaths, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
The tragic death of two boys at a construction site makes the reader pause and consider how devastating these two deaths might be for the children. A pet is one thing, a childhood friend is quite another. How much can this class take of death and dying? Considering the kind of year it has been, it is possible they have become hardened and desensitized. There must be those, however, who are so sensitive as to be taking each loss to heart. It is true that “children tend to grieve in spurts because they have a limited capacity for tolerating the intense psychological pain and ambivalence associated with grief,” which in this case is undoubtedly a very good thing (Sharkin 417). But the author is not content to tug at heartstrings. He comes up with, “there’s a court case coming out of that” (Barnard 492). The story proves to be timeless. No one should be able to suppress a wry chuckle at that particular comment. And as though there is not enough depression to go around, Barthelme hits the reader again. The teacher forgets about the violent death of Billy Brandt’s father. He forgets? It never lets up. The reader has to laugh at this point. The whole series of events has brought the reader to the surreal, and that is a good thing, too, because the end is near and a surreal mindset will be helpful to understanding it.
The climax is now upon the reader. “One day, we had a discussion in class (Barnard).” The children wanted to know “where did they go” (Barnard 492)? The teacher gives no direct answer, except to say “I don’t know, I don’t know” (Barnard 492). There is a brief exchange and suddenly it is the children who say, “â€¦is death that which gives meaning to life” (Barnard 492)? How perceptive of the children. Edgar responds with “no, life is that which gives meaning to
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life” (Barnard 492). Here is where Barthelme puts surreal into overdrive as his children say, “â€¦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 – ” (Barnard 492). After such erudite mutterings by elementary school children (although mundanity does not appear to be a real word), in the end it is much simpler. The children manage to simplify the whole experience and boil it down to the fact that “it’s a bloody shame” (Barnard 492). The reader might see this as anti-climactic. But at this juncture of the story, taken as an escalating pattern, “a sort of bleak, absurdist epistemological stance is impliedâ€¦but, at the same time, their playful manipulations of language and literary conventions invite the reader to similarly demystify or deconstruct his own systems,” much as the children will do in the end (McCaffery 77).
Barthelme makes a surgical turn and the children now want Edgar to make love to the teaching assistant, Helen. Of course, the children, who up until now the reader might have underestimated, only ask this in the pursuit of higher learning “so that we can see how it is done” (Barnard 492). How original! Barthelme’s “sense of personal, political, and social fragmentation” is manifested within his literary “impulse to collage, verbal fragmentation, free association, and other methods of juxtaposition to break down familiar patterns of order” (McCaffery 78). Barthelme’s children want the demonstration because they “require an assertion of value, we are frightened” (Barnard 493). It is striking that such a poignant phrase is used here, but the reader will not be allowed to rest.
With the closing paragraph, the story collapses completely into hilarity. Edgar and Helen follow instructions, for educational purposes only, of course, and “the children were
excited” (Barnard 493). Suddenly, the story takes another turn. “There was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in” (Barnard 493). The reader must assume the gerbil did the knocking, and Barthelme has the gerbil walking inâ€¦on two feet? It might be so, because “the children cheered wildly” (Barnard 493). The casual reader might not find much sober meaning here, but is it not a testament to the persistence of life and the irrepressible spirit of children as they are willing to embrace yet another living thing? After all, the reader knows what will happen!
Donald Barthelme is no doubt a shining star in the world of metafiction. His laser sharp wit, coupled with his salient ability to use language and phraseology, skillfully leads the reader exactly where he wants him to go. He produced a superb story; one that can be simply entertaining or profoundly thought-provoking. If the reader can think outside the box, there is a great deal to discover in this wickedly masterful tale.
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