This is my second entry in the “2019 Deal Me In Short Story Challenge” hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This week, I drew a 5 of Clubs, which took me to Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” originally published in 1975. I found the story in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.
Donald Barthelme (pictured above), who lived from 1931-1989, was known for writing short stories that are “surreal” or “postmodern” or “experimental.” These are all fancy ways of saying his stories don’t make a lot of sense. (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)
“The School” is narrated by a teacher named Edgar. He starts the story by explaining how his 30 students all planted orange trees as part of their education. All of the trees died. Then we learned that the children’s snakes all died as well. So did the herb gardens they worked on, as did the tropical fish. The puppy, too, died, as did the Korean orphan, two children, and one child’s father.
Eventually, the children asked the teacher what happened to all of these dead creatures? Where did they go? The teacher said nobody knew.
And then the children asked “is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, 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—
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don’t like it.” (310)
In recompense, the children wanted the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant, Helen, in front of them. They want to know how lovemaking is done.
The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but he kissed Helen a few times on the brow. Then a gerbil knocked on the door and walked into the class, after which “The children cheered wildly.”
That’s how the story ends.
I would say this story is a postmodern experiment in surrealism. Or maybe a surreal experiment in postmodernism. In other words, I really don’t know what it means. I would guess it is a meditation on the inevitable cycle of life, death, lovemaking, and gerbils. But mostly death. So you might as well make love with the teaching assistant.