How to teach Donald Barthelme’s “The School” in School

You can find a copy of “The School” here.

Sometimes it’s difficult to teach our favorite stories. We can bullshit the students, highlighting particular sentences that stick out, or arrange a Socratic Seminar in which the students reflect and debate the essence of the story. One of my favorites is “The School” and I’ve included and solid step-by-step guide for teaching it.

  1. This can be applied to any grade, but is best for the younger kids. They tend to have a better grasp on life.
  2. Make sure you have a podium, or a lectern (which is really just a stuck-up way of saying podium) and hide a small glass of bourbon from which you will sip occasionally.
  3. You must have a teacher’s aide, or some other helper, and they must be of the sex which you are attracted to.
  4. Read the story aloud, pacing yourself, and add dramatic pauses when necessary. Use your hands, but not when the glass is in them. Bourbon is not to be flung and wasted.
  5. When you get to the line: “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 –” be sure to finish your glass if you haven’t already. Loosen your tie.
  6. When you get to the line: “They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.” call your assistant over and shove your tongue down their throat. Grab a lot of butt. The smaller grades will be frightened, the middle grades will be shocked, and the high school kids will be oblivious. Regardless, progress into your love making and don’t stop until someone knocks at your door.
  7. Ideally, whoever knocks on your door will present a gift, probably an animal. Let the kids be distracted by the pet while you and the assistant get dressed in a cloud of shame. Spray some Febreeze to mask the sex.
  8. Cry. Laugh. Give the kids a reflective assignment. Ask them to answer the question: Why does life matter? What did you learn from this story?
  9. Never read the assignments. Ball them up and play paper toss on your lunch break. Pour more bourbon. Fire your assistant.
  10. If no one knocks on your door after step 6, then I’m sorry you did this in the first place. But you’re the teacher. Take ownership.You only get the one life.

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