Themes

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Uncertainty and Mystery

The School” emphasizes the presence of uncertainty and mystery. In the opening lines, readers learn that the narrator, school teacher Edgar, doesn’t understand why the orange trees his students’ planted have died. He remarks, “I don’t know why they died, they just died.” He goes on to speculate various reasons why they may have, but the lack of a conclusive answer sets the story’s uncertain tone. The primary source of uncertainty is the question of where living things go when they die. Not only the orange trees, but also the students’ class snakes, gerbils, tropical fish, puppy, adopted student in Korea, two students in the class, and multiple parents pass away. Despite the students' constant questions to Edgar about why so many animals, plants, and people are dying, Edgar can only reply that he doesn't know and that nobody knows. This latter statement suggests that the destination of the deceased is a mystery and therefore unknowable. The theme of uncertainty and mystery lies at the heart of Barthelme’s short narrative.

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The Value of Responsibility

The story promotes the theme that it is an individual's responsibility to create one's value in life, to make meaning for oneself, and to find one's own sense of the world. This theme of responsibility is shown in how the students are asked to care for various other living beings. The act of “cultivating one’s garden” is emblematic of self-responsibility, a trope popularized at least as early as the 18th century, in Voltaire’s novel Candide. Despite the fact that the student's charges continue to die, Edgar keeps bestowing new responsibilities to the class to care for, indicating the inherent value in caring for others.

The importance of responsibility is also shown in how Edgar does not lie to the students. The question of the value of life comes up pointedly when the students ask Edgar if death, which recurred so often in their class, is what gives meaning to life. He responds in the negative, suggesting rather that “life is that which gives meaning to life.” Although Edgar cannot answer the students’ questions about the nature and meaning of death, he makes a good-faith effort to converse with them on the topic in order to be as instructive as possible. In this way, he demonstrates his responsibility to his students.

The Importance of Education

The theme of education’s importance undergirds the entire story. True to its title, the story indeed takes place in a school and illustrates the Socratic method of a question-and-answer learning model between student and teacher. Life lessons are learned through discursive conversation with elders rather than a didactic approach. This promotes the role of teachers and education in general in society, in fact catapulting the role of teacher to the most important philosophical importance of bestowing students with lessons to help them live. The story goes beyond a standard understanding of a school teacher as teaching math, writing, or science. Instead the story speaks to the human need for a place where they can ask deep philosophical questions—such as the nature of life and death—and be met with an honest, non-moralistic teacher in response.

On the other hand, the literal school in the story is also allegorical for the way in which life is a school, a place to constantly ask questions and be open to learning, failing, and succeeding. Too many people cease asking the meaning behind events, such as death, and become resigned to routine and repetition. The story, with its question-and-answer exchange between the students and Edgar, suggests that life ought to be questioned in such a fashion. Despite the unanswerable nature of certain philosophical questions, this Socratic mode may be the best way to make sense of life.

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