Donald Barthelme’s The School: Death Is Simple

Experiential learning is a method of teaching that allows the student to learn from experience rather than textbook. Education is not something that is only taught in textbooks, but in reality, nature is the teacher. Exposure to the natural, the world of the reality of life and death, is something that can be harmful, yet a valuable learning experience. Education and nature go hand in hand, to which nature is our first and most meaningful teacher.

Although experiential learning is a such a powerful tool in the learning process, the methods to which it is done must take the lesson into account. For example, the teacher in The School is using responsibility as a means of teaching the children a lesson, while he is actually exposing the children to death. The teacher is indifferent to the results of the experiential learning and tends to be politically correct in his response to his student’s most complex question. Teaching concepts that are life lessons, such as responsibility to children require the teacher to provide an experimental learning method that is appropriate for the children.

The School, is a short story that has the motif of death in it. The trees that the students plant, the snakes, the gerbil, the puppy, the child they adopted from Korea, their own peers, their parents, they all die. The teacher is very nonchalant in his narration, and it goes to represent that death is something that comes and we are just supposed to roll along. Everything that the children adopts dies, it goes through the cycle of life, and inevitably comes to an end. The teacher through and through, is giving them chance after chance of responsibility, attempting to teach them, that they have to take care of something to live. The teacher subconsciously is stripping them of their innocence, they keep adopting pets and then ultimately a person that ends up dead; the teacher is exposing them to death. The teacher is very used to death and sees it as something natural, no big deal, but it  now only believe that life ends in death and that death is what gives meaning to life, because of the finality of the end.

The children, then ask the teacher of what happens after death, where did all the things that died go? We see a tonal shift, as the children, realizing their innocence is gone, their joy and breathing in life is gone, are questioning life and death in itself. They are now seeing that They have lost dear pets due to their lack of responsibility, sometimes no real or identifiable cause of death, to accidents, to the wrong place at the wrong time. Children who are seemingly only in elementary school asking where do all the things go in the end. It’s not a strange question, just one that is hard to answer. The teacher acknowledges that he does not know. Teachers, though thought of as this source of knowledge are too, stumped with questions. The educators themselves can’t answer matters that are inexplicable, but can provide a certain universally wise answer.

The children, who are seemingly young, give this prose, “…but isn’t death considered a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –“ very poised and grandeur explanation, do not explain what death actually means or is in relation to life. This presents that even the words datum, fundamental, mundanity, and transcended, no matter how big the words, cannot articulate the meaning, or even structure a question on matters that can’t be explained. The teacher corrects their understanding of the relation by saying that life is what gives meaning to life, not death. Life is something that gives meaning to life but also death. What we do in life gives meaning to the next life, what we procreate and what we leave behind to the next generation.

The children then understanding that life is what gives meaning to life, have not seen anything but death, which is rightfully so. They are now moving from questioning death to questioning life, in a more positive route. They ask their teacher to make love to Helen, the teaching assistant to assert the value of life and love. The teacher saying life giving meaning to life, is also, a deeper meaning into which love is that which creates life. They have only seen death, and want to make an estimated value and demonstration on how life is given meaning to life. Whether, this is a simple meaning of love or procreation, is another topic. Love is what also brings life meaning to life. The children are finally understanding the relation to life and death, and that they have finally learned their lesson, though it stripped their innocence. Their next adoption is now something that will have a more positive feeling, that maybe they can save their pet, or have it at least living longer than two weeks in the future.

Death is very strange, a motif not only in literature but also life, and something that can be very amusing; it is something that is natural to the world. Death is a mystery yet something that is known, there is a sense of duality. Duality in a sense that death is something that is inexplicable yet omnipresent, it surrounds us. In the state of nature all things must die, it’s a solid rule, but what happens after death is something that can’t be explained. We can only rule that life is something that is a means to an end, or life is something that brings meaning to the end.

Children are innocent creatures, that have words like light, pure, and white associated with them. They are held upon a cloud that is somehow a great divider from reality and the mystery of matters of the world such as death. William Wordsworth once posed of, “What should a child know of death?”. The answer is nothing. Children contrary to adults have not experienced life in harsh ways, the oppression of society and the loss of self, but they draw life into every fiber of their being, to which they value life. When they see that organisms no longer breathe, then they contemplate the value and means of life. They then begin to question the meaning of life and death, and which one brings out the other. Teaching children and answering a question on such matters is something that is often a conundrum, because there is no right answer.

Death is a controversial matter to teach upon, whether direct or indirect. To educate a child, on such matters would be threatening to their innocence. Their innocence is like grace, a power to see things in a positive light, to not see corruption, and to breathe in life like a blooming flower in the summer, care free. I now pose a question, if the child was bereaved, their innocence lost, could they answer the question to what’s next after life? No.

Their education of death, though not a primary teaching goal, is something that always happens through the education system. The teachers want to teach one simple life fact of responsibility, but then go into a tangent on something that has more impact or a lasting effect on the child. The exposure to death, though a lot, is a method of teaching. Exposure, the very operative word brings about a learning method and death. Exposure to different things, can strip one’s old thoughts and innocence on a matter of a subject. The children had to learn about death in order to learn about life. Experiential learning, exposure, is something that we all must go through, whether we like it or not, exposure to something that we don’t understand, allows us to understand it.

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