Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659
Written in 1974, “The School” is a short story from Donald Barthelme’s collection Sixty Stories. Because the story is only three pages, it is considered a piece of flash fiction. Told from the first-person perspective of a classroom teacher named Edgar, the story opens as the narrator wonders why all of the trees in the school’s garden have been dying. The language of the text is informal in tone and style, and in the first sentence, Edgar directly addresses the audience mid-thought. He explains to the reader why the school believes that planting trees teaches children valuable skills—such as how to be “individually responsible” in “taking care of things”—and yet all of the trees that they have planted are dead.
Edgar paints a picture of the classroom’s thirty children as they sadly discover the dead trees, unaware of the cause. He then recalls that three weeks earlier their snakes died as well. He emphasizes that, in contrast, they knew the snakes had died because the boiler was shut off during a strike. As Edgar continues to contemplate the confusing circumstances surrounding the deaths of the classroom’s various plants and animals, he lists the losses of white mice, gerbils, a salamander, and tropical fish.
After briefly describing these more predictable deaths, Edgar declares, “We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.” He tells the story of how a girl from his class rescued a puppy from under a truck and brought it to school. Despite his reluctance, he allows his class to keep the puppy, explaining that “you can’t tell them they can’t have a puppy when the puppy is already there.” Edgar says that the children named the puppy after him, fondly remembering how “they enjoyed the ambiguity” of addressing “Edgar.” His prediction that the puppy would only live for two weeks becomes a reality. As was the case with the rest of the classroom’s animals, he does not know why the puppy died, guessing that it must have been from distemper or from not having received shots.
Edgar reveals that not only have the classroom’s plants and animals died, but several humans have as well. For example, a Korean child, an “orphan that the class adopted through the Help the Children program,” died inexplicably. Feeling disheartened, Edgar suspects that the children began to believe that perhaps the school is cursed, especially considering the recent streak of untimely deaths among parents. Edgar initially reasons that these events were simply a pattern of bad luck, but his perspective changes after an event he describes as “the tragedy,” in which two children—Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo—ambiguously died while playing at excavation site.
Edgar then reflects upon a class discussion that occurred sometime after this string of mysteriously catastrophic incidents. When the students in his class ask him where all of these beings—plants, animals, and humans—went when they died, he responds that he does not know, that nobody does. The class questions if death gives life meaning, but Edgar tells them that “no, life is that which gives meaning to life.” This statement sparks further debate among the classmates, who are disappointed at the prospect of living a finite existence.
The story ends with a jarring request from Edgar’s class: that he makes love with the teaching assistant, Helen, to provide them with a demonstration of how it is done. He declines their request, explaining that he would be fired, and that love-making is not done as a demonstration. The children continue to beg him to sleep with Helen, anxiously stating that they “require an assertion of value.” He reassures them not to be frightened, expressing that “there was value everywhere.” Helen then approaches Edgar, and they embrace, much to the children’s delight. Edgar suddenly hears a knock on the door. When he opens it, the classroom’s new gerbil walks in, and the children cheer.