The short story “The School” by Donald Barthelme uses subtle wording and references to death making the reader believe this text is written in a pessimistic voice, but, in actuality, the text is extremely optimistic. Unlike most stories, “The School” has no introductory paragraph because the stories main ideas are dispersed subliminally throughout the story. It is written in a conversational tone, but it flows smoothly throughout. It has a unique, contemporary narrative structure, and through this way of writing, the reader realizes this story is not about death but about the idea that life can be created as fast as it is destroyed.
One main idea of this story is the school is not a traditional, socially acceptable school. In the first three paragraphs, the reader receives the notion that this school is unconventional. For this school’s curriculum, they had the children “planting trees” and “herb gardens” (535). Each child had their own tree and herb garden and was responsible for taking care of it. Also, the children had many pets to take care of including: “snakes,” “a tropical fish,” “gerbils,” “white mice,” and a “salamander” (535-536). They had a “puppy” “which they weren’t supposed to have” because it was against school policy, but their teacher let them keep it, which most traditional teachers do not allow (536). In traditional classrooms, there is usually just one class pet that way the teacher can make sure it is being properly nurtured.
Because each child had to take care of their own plant and their own pet, the plants and animals died from neglect or over feeding or just not being properly cared for. This system did, however, help the children understand what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. Also, in the last paragraph, the children want Edgar, their teacher, and Helen, his assistant, to make love in front of them as a demonstration. In socially acceptable schools, it is unheard of even asking a teacher to perform intercourse. In this text, they discussed it and pleaded with him to do it. Being unconventional instructors, Edgar and Helen “embraced” each other in front of the class, and he “kissed her a few times on the brow” (537). In traditional classrooms, this would be considered unprofessional and grounds for termination of their employment. This semi-sexual act brings up the notion of procreation [life].
The reference to death is repeated throughout this text. In the first through fourth paragraphs, the narrator refers to death by using words such as “died,” “kicked off,” and “belly-up” (535-536). Through the use of these words, the reader gets the impression that the narrator does not care about the deaths of these beings, but this impression changes after reading the rest of the text.
In the next set of paragraphs, the words referring to death do not occur as often. When describing what happened to the dog, the narrator’s phrasing was not as empathetic. When the narrator talked about the “Korean orphan’s” death, he only used the word “death” to say he did not know the orphan’s “cause of death” (536). He, then, describes the death of the parents as “passing away” (536). The reader knows the narrator was affected by the deaths of all these people because of his respectful way of telling their stories. Finally, “the tragedy” paragraph about the two boys did not use any words meaning death (536). The narrator only implied that the boys died. The tone of this paragraph becomes more solemn. It ends on a sad note with “It’s been a strange year” (536).
After these saddened toned stories, a paragraph or sentence is thrown in to make light of the situation. It was meant as comic relief, but a man getting “knifed” in his home is not a funny thing to joke about (536).
The ending of this text supports the idea of unconventional schooling and the first reference to life throughout the text. During the “discussion in class,” the narrator tells the children that “death [is not] that which gives meaning to life,” “life is that which gives meaning to life” (537). Every life has “value” (537). After Helen “embraced” Edgar, the “new gerbil” entered the classroom (537). “The children cheered wildly” because they thought the gerbil was created when Helen and Edgar “made love.” This display goes back to the unconventional ways of teaching children about creating life.
Throughout the text, the narrator expresses his unconventional ways of teaching the children about life and death. By supplying the children with living beings, Edgar teaches them how and why living beings die. Helen and Edgar’s display of affection shows the children how life is created. Edgar states that “life is that which gives meaning to life,” (537). Barthelme stresses the words of death throughout the text because in order to die you have to live.