“The School”


I’ve been apartment-hunting for the past four days. I guess it’s one of the most exhausting things people will have to get used to in their younger age. But then I’m glad now that I can choose and afford a place of my own.

So anyway, I was reading this short story on my ipad on one of the house-viewing occasions: “The School” by Donald Barthelme. You can read it through on here: <http://www.npr.org/programs/death/readings/stories/bart.html>. It was a pretty short read, but one that has stuck in my mind for days; I could say it was the scariest thing I’d read for a while now though I couldn’t precisely explain why.

To be specific, “The School” isn’t exactly a thriller, not a flesh and blood, Stephen King’s type of horror, but one that pierces and clenches onto one’s living soul just as well. The story starts with this class of thirty children and their subsequently “failed” experiments, told from the adult vantage point of the teacher. Every time the experiment goes ruined, the children find themselves witnessing a kind of death: of their orange trees, of the herb gardens, the snakes, a puppy named after their teacher, a Korean orphan and two of their friends. It is as surreal as I love it to be and yet deeply horrifying: There was no violent physical confrontation, no brains smashing on the concrete or splendid crimson blood spattering on walls or children’s bodies splayed piecewise; the students watch death creeping on the hinges of their lives with eyes of surprisingly uncontrived curiosity and indifference.

The things that die show to be more and more significant each time: a plant, a small animal, a larger animal, a distant friend and then close classmates, as if mirroring the typical order one experiences losses in life: from the little things to larger, more meaningful existences. Its inevitability can leave one deprived and hopeless about life or the future, but it doesn’t for the people in this story. The children grow “curiouser and curiouser” and has somewhat learnt to enjoy the spectacle of life as it is. I think that was exactly what shocked me in my first read.

“Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.” The story ends in a circle and the students find their new distraction, as a way to carry on. There’s this sense of something slipping away, something precious and a deep grief rippling from beneath the façade of indifference of the bewildered narrator.


I remembered a blogger mentioning the “loss of innocence” as displayed by the children’s indifference to deaths and losses; I partially agreed, for this story is about the loss of innocence of the children as much as it is of the adults, of us, the readers.

It is established from the beginning, through the narrator’s tone, that the audience takes the vantage point of an adult, assuming adults’ thoughts and beliefs. In our minds, children are innocent, or we simply would like them to be. We projected ourselves on this group of thirty students and they represent that part of us that we would like to be protected, that room we would like to keep impeccable, so that we can take shelter in it.

I guess the reason why this story is scary to me is that it seems to scratch at that fundamental idea buried deep in my consciousness. In that shapeless room, children are surrounded by deaths, vulnerable and exposed to the adults’ “reality” that we know and suffer. They are unprotected and their surrounding world seems blank. The introduction of this idea through Barthelme’s surreal plot makes us feel confronted and vulnerable; and our sole shelter taken away from us.

A few also has suggested that this story is about hope, but I doubt it. Anyway, I’ve only scratched on the surface of its meaning and I really hope to come back at it again in the future.  Currently, I’m a little curious and surprised as to why this story isn’t named “The Classroom” instead.


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