One great short story to read today: Donald Barthelme’s “The School”

Emily Temple

May 2, 2024, 10:30am

According to the powers that be (er, apparently according to Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network), May is Short Story Month. To celebrate, for the second year in a row, the Literary Hub staff will be recommending a single short story, free* to read online, every (work) day of the month. Why not read along with us? Today, we recommend:

“The School,” by Donald Barthleme

It’s no secret that I love this story. Every time I return to it, I do so with a little edge of trepidation, in case it has somehow degraded in my time away from it (or maybe I would have been the one to be somehow degraded). Any reading experience being, in general, inseparable from time and place, and the person you were when you were holding the book—but in particular, I have been warned that I would “grow out” of Barthleme. Nah. “The School,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1974, never lets me down: it is the escalation story that all other escalation stories look up to; it is elegant and funny and, at just over 1,200 words, exactly as long as it needs to be to deliver its stupidly effective gut-punch. (Trust Barthelme to land the kinds of lines that shouldn’t be landable.) Well, perhaps I am stunted. Oh well—

The story begins:

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.

Read it here.

*If you hit a paywall, we recommend trying with a different/private/incognito browser (but listen, you didn’t hear it from us).

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