Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that… that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems… and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
“The School” is a short story by the supposedly postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme. It begins with the above-quoted paragraph, and describes the many deaths, both plant and animal, that a particular (and one might say particularly strange) school has to deal with. The narrator, a teacher named Edgar, reassures us that the trees dying “wouldn’t have been so bad except that…,” and the story continues with more deaths. Though this might sound rather depressing, it’s actually not. This is the kind of story that one feels odd about laughing at, but that’s not enough reason to resist laughter; it becomes apparent as one reads that laughter is clearly half of what the author wants to inspire in you anyway.
As the quotation above evidences, “The School” is written in a rather informal manner, and conveys the feeling of being told a story that actually happened to the storyteller very well. This style, it seems to me, keeps the reader just comfortable enough to be surprised, not bored, when the story yet again becomes more absurd. And yet there is more to it than absurdity. After reading the story (which is only about three pages long), one is left with the unanswered question of where organisms, for want of a better term, go when we die. What is “value” in a world where death is unpredictable and common? And, a thought coming to me now as I write this, if Barthelme is portraying a world in which Hobbes is right, in which life is “nasty, brutish and short,” why does it seem so… cute? The last few paragraphs of the story might provide an answer, but another form of the question remains: How can our world often seem so calm, mundane even, when it contains death, life, and love, all such amazing things?
On a less philosophical note, “The School” was made into a short film by recent York University graduates Ezra Krybus and Matthew Miller, and is now being shown at film festivals. I recently saw it at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and can first note that it uses much of the short story verbatim in its script, but dramatically changes the ending. In an interview (at <http://msfilmfest.com/theSchool.htm>), the filmmakers also describe how they used a long voice-over by Edgar to preserve the narrative feel of the story, but also “set out to ensure the visuals told a slightly different story than the one Edgar was telling us.” The effect of this is excellent, and I recommend the film if it happens to be at a festival near you.
In addition to being available, presumably legally, from NPR’s website, “The School” can be found in the Donald Barthelme compilation 60 Stories. As far as I know the movie has thus far only been shown at festivals.