Barthelme’s The School: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Donald Barthelme had three stories make the long list, more than any other writer. Here’s my recounting and review of one of them, The School.

This story is written as if the teacher is telling the story to a friend. It’s written very casually, as though the teacher is trying to understand the string of events himself.

Throughout the school year, the students have continually encountered death. They planted orange trees that died. Before that, they kept snakes that died when the boiler was shut off during a school strike. The children had planted herb gardens which were apparently overwatered and died. The classroom also dealt with the death of gerbils, white mice, salamanders. Tropical fish died.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

The teacher tells how the class adopted a Korean child, and we adopted him too late or something. A few parents passed away during the year.

There were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and four killed together in a car accident.

Grandparents died too.

And finally the tragedy.

Two kids were were killed playing at an excavation site.

One day, the kids ask the teacher, where did they go? The kids ask increasingly poignant questions about death, as if they’ve matured into philosophical wizards. And then, the conversation turns:

They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant) so that we can see how it is done?

The teacher informs the children he cannot make love to Helen. That he would be fired.

They said please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.

The teacher tells the children they shouldn’t be frightened, though he acknowledges to the reader that he is frightened himself.

Helen walks over and hugs him and he kisses her a few times on the forehead as the children grow excited.

The story ends with:

Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.

Barthelme builds the sequence of deaths so that eventually we find humor in the horribleness of death. We go from a tree, to reptiles and rodents, to puppies to humans. If anything, we learn life is a classroom and death continually raises unanswerable questions. What I love about this story is how the conversation turns from death to sex. The children have come to see the inevitability of death, and how awful it is. After learning about death, they feel compelled to learn about sex.

I once interviewed a woman (in her seventies) who told me she often felt sexual compulsions after she attended a funeral. She was speaking to the fact that when we are confronted with our own mortality up close, we are inclined to want to procreate, in some way we strive to find a path to immortality. This is not unusual. I’ll even remind readers of the scene in The Wedding Crashers where Will Ferrell moves on from weddings to funerals for picking up women. Barthelme’s story ties these themes of sex, love and death together from a unique viewpoint. This is a very short, easy to read story that uses humor to touch on universal truths. It’s a great read and leaves me excited to explore more of Barthelme’s writing.

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