Donald Barthelme’s “The School” and Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation”

In both of these pieces, pay particular attention to word choice, patterns, and the intentional subverting of readerly expectations.

1) If we read “The School” under the expectations of strict realism, we’d be horrified.  Where and how does Barthelme provide clues within the text for how to read this story?

2) Why does Barthelme use an adult’s voice to ask children’s questions?  (or, why are these children so strangely adult-like?)

3) “Orientation” works with an interesting and intricate point of view/narrative distance.  Why does Orozco give such detailed, personal information about everyone except the narrator?

4) What’s so significant about the repetition of the phrase “he/she/you might be let go?”

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21 responses to “Donald Barthelme’s “The School” and Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation”

  1. 1) I, personally, never caught onto any one clue that reminded me how to approach the story. The author talked about death really early in the story, which I was taken back by. However, I think Barthelme was trying to prepare the reader for whats to come. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew that this story was going to incorporate a lot of adult themes. Initially, I did find it strange that all of the thirty trees died right after the children planted them.

    2) The children are portrayed as very mature youngsters. Many of them have been exposed to issues that many children should not endure early on in life. Death of a loved one is a key example. The author mentioned that many of the parents, of the children, passed away. Unfortunately, none of the deaths were natural causes which makes it even more sad. Therefore, I think the teacher felt it was appropriate to ask adult questions since many of them have been exposed to the abnormal.

    3) I think the narrator was trying to remind the new employee what to expect from the new work environment. All of the workers have a love and hate relationship. Many of the feelings, that each employee has for each other, is not mutual. The works all have very unique obsessions especially the woman who is passionate about penguins. In addition, people are let go over some very ridiculous things.

    4) My first impression of the story was: “What kind of work environment is the narrator trying to promote?” The author did use a lot of imagery and descriptive sentences into his story. The entire story focused on the narrator describing the work environment and the unusual employees. Therefore, the story would be more confusing if the author did not incorporate the he/ she/ let go into the story.

  2. 1.) There are little clues as to the unreliability of the first-person narrator from the beginning since Edgar doesn’t know why the orange trees died; they just did. Then “none of their parents would let them cross the picket line and they knew there was a strike going on and what it meant” to explain the death of the snakes, the thought of possible sabotage to explain the herb gardens dying and so on (though an unidentified “we” has decided that it was the fault of the children over-watering). All of this reads like a defensive response to a question (the reader doesn’t know) with a completely subjective response.

    2.) By giving the children adult voices, Barthelme underscores the narrator’s consistency in blaming the children for most of the deaths that occur within the school. “Edgar’s” voice is more vernacular than scholarly and the opposite is what would be expected. The children’s voices are projected questions from the narrator. The children know more than the teacher (which is what I assumed the narrator’s voice is). The narrator has to be crazy – children young enough to cheer wildly when “the new gerbil walked in” (the wording itself undermining Edgar’s sanity) would not ask whether “…death, a fundamental datum” etc…it’s entertaining and disturbing at the same time. Nor would they have asked to see him make love with Helen. See, all the death they’ve experienced would explain why they’d want to see copulation…HUH? That’s funny!

    3.) The god-like, first person omniscient narration of “The Orientation” creates a world that the author is making fun of. The narrator can’t possibly know all of the details about all of the employees that he/she is describing. That’s even hinted at by the fact that the narrator refers to all of the office employees by their full names, even when they are referred to a second time. Despite the fact that excruciatingly intimate details are given about their lives. Details aren’t given about the narrator because all of the details about every other employee are fictitious – a way to make the boring (and, apparently, underprivileged – you can join any coffee pool but you can’t touch Mr. Coffee!) life of cubicle more bearable for the narrator.

    4.) The “you may be let go” being repeated implies a threat by the narrator that he/she must be believed – or else. Being let go would be the equivalent of death in this scenario. Though I did wonder whether the Unit Manager, Matthew Payne – who the addressee is told he/she will never see – is the narrator himself since “he is all around us.” Weirdly fun read!

  3. 1. the way the story is narrated is the first clue, its is closer to conversation than a narrative, especially considering clues from the narrators language such as “of course we expected the tropical fish to die” and ” We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy”
    2. There is no explanation given, it just adds proof to the fact that something is off in this story.
    3.It adds to the fact that the narrator is somewhat sinister…or otherworldly with his information of everyone’s most personal details.
    4.It shows the ambiguity of the world the story is in and further solidifies how the setting of the story is slightly off.

  4. 1. I feel that Barthelme suggests how to read this story in the first paragraph, when the narrator talks about the children planting trees. The tone of the narrator is somewhat lackadaisical, especially when he tries to provide a reason for the kids planting trees. “[It] was part of their education…you know…the root systems…being individually responsible…you know what I mean” (pg 19). Introducing the story this way seemed comforting, because it gave a sense of easiness to the style of writing.

    2. I think the author uses an adult’s voice to ask children’s questions, because he is trying to create a unique environment where children are looked upon as equals and not adolescents. This is why I particularly enjoyed Barthelme’s approach of having children playing adult-like roles. The constant theme of death throughout the story made the children question life, and the author uses that as a tool to create these strange adult-like children.

    3. I think Orozco gives such detailed information for everyone except the narrator, because the narrator is introducing the new employee to the office. This gives the readers an insight into the company from the narrator’s point of view, which is quite interesting. By the end of the story, Orozco leaves a sense of mystery as to what type employee the narrator is. Although the narrator’s view of the office may be biased, it does present an overall general understanding of who everyone is and what they are known for.

    4. The significance of the phrase is to inform the new employee how not to get fired. Throughout the Orientation, the narrator gives a brief synopsis of the people and sections of the office and he/she uses the phrase almost as a reminder to the readers that he is taking around this new employee.

  5. Frankie Zelnick

    1) I agree with Dan that the conversation-like narration is an important clue as to how to approach this story. It gives it a sort of light-heartedness that might not otherwise exist if told in a different way. It also doesn’t particularly wallow in any of the deaths. It sort of just presents them as “this is what happened, I can’t tell you why…” which gives the story a sense of being casual. Edgar seems relatively unaffected by it, and in a lot of ways implies the children feel the same. There is almost so much death, that it becomes this mundane and natural part of their lives. It becomes almost a joke, that of course everything that comes into your life dies, like an infamously bad pet-owner. This is just what happens. It’s “expected”, like the death of the fish.

    2) I am not completely sure if I misread it, or perhaps more accurately, read too much into it, but I thought the children had adult voices in order to convey the idea that the questions we ask as children (although asked in less articulate voices than adults) are the same questions we have throughout our lives. Namely, the question of why. Why do things die, why do we live, what is the point? I thought Edgar’s own voice reinforced this idea – “I don’t know what’s true and what’s not”, “I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened)”, “I don’t know why they died, they just died”, “and I said, nobody knows.” I thought that was a large part of what the story was trying to say, that nobody knows. Nobody knows why, although we look for ways to ask and to explain. In some ways, I felt that his voice was often childlike, this unknowing, this uncertainty about why things happen. Throughout the story, he too, as well as the unknown “we” are trying to find explanation for things, theorizing what could have happened to the herb garden, the expectation of the death of the fish, what caused the puppy to die.

    3) I love the narrative distance of this story. I think it, as Kris pointed out, it provides the story with a lot of humor and allows the author to poke fun at the sort of discord between life and work – who we are in our “work lives” versus who we are in our “real lives.” I thought this was particularly great – and funny – in relation to the serial killer and how he “does not let any of this interfere with his work.” The detailed descriptions of the setting parallels the descriptions of the characters in that it is so matter-of-fact. This is where we keep the stapler, and this is where the serial killer sits. It all becomes this extremely humorous commentary on what our work lives look like, on what all of life boils down to – these simple facts.

    4) I agree with Dan that the repetitive “let go” line provides an important note on the ambiguity of life. It also sort of hints at where importance is placed in this environment, and in doing so, reiterates the humor of the story. You can be a murderer, you can cry in a bathroom stall, you can steal other people’s food, you can never be seen by your coworkers, you can be sad or suffering or in love, but don’t let any of it interfere with your work, or you will be let go. Don’t ask too many questions or take too long a lunch break or touch the Mr. Coffee. Don’t let on that you know more than you’re supposed to know. Those things are significant. Those are the things that matter here, and perhaps the larger commentary is, everywhere.

  6. 1. I didn’t catch on to any clues on how to read or approach the story. But I did get the feeling that this was going to have a lot of adult themes from the first paragraph.

    2. I think Barthelme had these children talk so adult-like because they had been through so much. They had already experienced so much and when they wanted to talk about death, I didn’t find it surprising. But, the language they used threw me off. The kids said, “isn’t death… the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday…” They asked a very sophisticated question with very adult-like language and this didn’t bother me. But, when the narrator gave a quick response they replied, “We don’t like it.” If Barthelme was going to have them ask these adult-like questions, then he should have continued the argument with adult language. By just having the kids respond like a kid, it confused me as a reader.

    3. I think Orozco didn’t include information about the narrator because it wasn’t important. What was important was the people and the relationships in the workplace. He used the narrator to tell the new employee and the reader about the people who make up this world.

    4. I agree with Kris that he/she will be let go adds believability to the story. In this story, the workplace is the most important place and if you are let go then you don’t exist. The narrator reminds the new employee to just do their work and not to get tangled up with any of the other workers.

  7. Ryan MacGillivray

    1. I think the first line is a clue especially how he starts off with “Well, we had all these children out planting trees,…” that to me seems like he is answering someone’s question and that he doesn’t have much of an interest, like everything that happened was no big deal and everything worked out. Its slightly defensive like he’s saying like the kids are fine now. The use of the ellipses comes off to me as the narrator being very relaxed and comfortable with everything he is describing.
    2. When I was reading I was wondering is this how the kids are asking these questions or is this just the way the teacher is paraphrasing. After I read a second time I have to think it is what the kids actually talking like that (sounding like adults) and I can understand that because those kids have experienced things that will make a kid grow up fast, death is something that at any age will make you think deeply about life. I think he wanted to show how the kids are maybe more mature or adult like from their experiences.
    3. I think the fact that we don’t know anything about the narrator gives distance between not only the reader and narrator but also between the narrator and the person who he is talking to, who we do not know anything about either. I think it interesting because the narrator knows about everyone’s personal life but says to talk about and that no one talks about and to just do your work. It highlights a business aspect, in business nothing is personal it’s all about business; business men don’t care about anything that you do as long as you produce for them. The distance between the narrator illustrates that.
    4. Again the repetition of those words shows a bigger view of the company and that they don’t care who the employees are or even what their names are as long as they do their jobs and if they don’t then you get let go, it is very cut and dry and sort of in your face.

    • Thanks, Ryan. Interesting that the ellipses to you signified the narrator’s comfort and relaxation. I might interpret them as suggesting that he’s somewhat frazzled and distracted. Others, what do you think?

  8. 1. The story is to be read as though we are having a conversation with Edgar or hearing him tell us an account of something that’s happened. The matter-of-factness makes the tragic events in the story somewhat humorous. For example, Edgar talks about the gerbils, mice and salamander that died by saying, “well, now they know not to carry them around in plastic bags.” The humor is subtle throughout the story: the way the narrator basically expects everything to die and doesn’t seem all that affected by it; the cultivated way in which the kids talk; and even at the end when the class gets a new gerbil.

    2. This goes along with the idea of the story being more of a casual conversation—that we’re “hearing” it instead of reading it. There’s no dialogue because in order to maintain the conversation-like feel of the story, the narrator has to keep talking; any formal dialogue would be out of place. I think that giving the kids an adult voice shows us that Edgar is projecting his own fears and doubts as he relays the kids’ questions.

    3. No one would know all the details of the employees and what goes on, so when the narrator is able to give such detailed descriptions of everything and everyone, our reaction is not take it seriously. The fact that narrator never gives us any information about his or herself shows us that all the information about the other employees isn’t to be taken seriously–in the end none of it really matters.

    4. Orozco employs satire with the phrase “he/she/you might be let go” and other definitive and or threatening statements throughout the story. Essentially, the narrator is telling us (after lengthy, detailed descriptions of the employees) that it doesn’t matter what we do, who we kill, etc. so long as it doesn’t interfere with our work. I think the story could be interpreted as a satire, or critique, of our society where the emphasis is placed on working and having a job and the worst thing that could happen to us would be to lose that job.

  9. 1) As a few of you have already mentioned, I am not sure as to what clues Barthelme provides within the text on how to read this story. I think that since it is a first person narrator this could be some sort of hint that it may not be factual, and rather an interpretation or conversation. Additionally, the theme of death and SO many things dying shows that the story may be an exaggeration.

    2) I think that Barthelme makes the children in the story so strangely adult-like because of the numerous accounts of death in the story. I think he is saying that seeing and dealing with death first hand causes you to mature and grow up extremely quickly. These children have been surrounded by death much more than usual and therefore have had no choice but to become small adults.

    3) I personally think that narrator does not give any detailed, personal information about himself to illustrate the aspect of gossip at work. The narrator, along with the workers are not revealing their own personal information, yet it is being revealed through their actions as well as through others. People are going to talk about you and judge you in whatever you do whether it is fact or fiction.

    4) I think that the phrase about being let go was repeated so much to show you that the company can fire you for so many different reasons and they will find one if they really want you gone. They do not care about you as an individual and will have no trouble replacing you if you are let go.

  10. In the School, I agree with Klaus that the youngsters are portrayed as mature adult like chaartacters due to their direct expirences with death. Having them portrayed as mature I beleive read better as Barthelme’s can create clear and mature dialogue from the children. The choice of using the teacher in a youth voice could be to lessen the dramatic of the tradegy of death felt throughout the story. I also agree with Kris that the narrator could not be trusted, for it reads like he does not know the reason for the death, only that it had occured. Strange choice of delievery. In Orientation, I agree with julia that the story could be a critique of society and the importance that having a job means, and also the impact of losing that job represents. that could happen to us would be to lose that job. In a sense the description of the job is that its a terrific opportunity to the character, and being let go would be absolutely catastrophic. I found the story to be extremely humorous, and entertaining. I love how Orozco tied his characters toghter by descriping their love and affection to one another. It is like a viscious love triangle, but its written in a way that wasnt real confusing to me. The job itself sounds pretty horrifying, especially with the fact that a serial killer works there. The killer was a nice twist to the story giving it some unexpected depth. I really enjoyed Orientation!

  11. 1. The story starts off with the death of the orange trees and an no explanation for this. I thought well this is strange. Then it goes into the death of the snakes, herb garden, gerbils, the mice and then the puppy. My first thought was why did they have a puppy in school? Right there I sort of knew that this couldn’t possibly be realistic and that it was a deeper meaning to it.

    2. Throughout the story everything dies. The narrator either says he doesn’t know why something or blames it on the kids. He does switch back and forth between them being kids and adults. I really didn’t understand the ending at all when they ask him to make love with the teacher assistant so they could watch. Then she walks over and began kissing him, new gerbils arrive and they get ecstatic. HUH? I sort of took this as the children being forced to grow up but remaining children at hearts. I’m not sure. This was really a strange story.

    3. I completely agree with Kris. He couldn’t possibly know that one of the employees was a serial killer. Nor the details of how,when and who he would attack. I think the author chose this narration to show the reader you never know the truth behind the appearance. Also while reading the story I thought wow I would hate that job. He describes it in such a way that the job is really boring but there’s excitement in the drama of others lives.

    4. You can do anything you want when you are not at work. Do not let it interfere with your work or you will be let go. In my opinion, I think that is just a way of saying just don’t get caught. All the employees there are obviously mentally ill. But their great employees as far as their work goes. I don’t any of them have been caught doing anything so they are still employed because who would knowingly employ a serial killer. I would be terrified working with them even if I knew I wouldn’t be a victim.

  12. I think the first clue to not take “The School” in strictly realist sense is Barthelme’s laid back prose. I agree with Julia that this comes from the narrator writing in a conversational style than a more writerly style. The narrator’s indifference to the series of deaths and the fact that he expects most of them also shows that the scene we are being shown is not based completely in reality.

    I think the author uses a sophisticated tone for the children’s questions to bring to light the complexity of life and how people try to understand things that cannot be explained. The same childish curiosity of death is the basis for a series of much deeper philosophical arguments about life and death. I do not think Barthelme intended the children’s questions to be literal translations of what they said. He is describing it in a more intellectual style than a childish style to exaggerate the seriousness and depth of the questions that the reader may not have gotten if the kids asked “why did Edgar go bye-bye?”. He does not use quotes and still maintains his conversational style which is evidence towards an altered version of the children’s questions. Another option is that the kids actually did phrase the questions in an intelligent and mature manner. I think this could be because the children have seen so much death and had so many hardships that they were much mature than others. Due to the amount of the loss they encountered there cognitive age would be closer to a middle aged person than a young child.

    I think Orozco gives in depth descriptions of the people in the office while not saying anything about himself because the narrator is introducing you to the office. He keeps a distance to show that he is a co-worker not your buddy. He describes everyone else as seemingly ridiculous caricatures to illustrate the stereotypes that get perpetuated in a workplace and the rumors that also seem to have a snowball effect. I also agree with many of the other posts that it shows the distance between life at work and life out of work.

    I think the phrase “he/she/you might be let go” serves once again to express the distance between out of work and work life. It also stresses the shallowness of the work place. It doesn’t matter what you do out of work, including killing people, if you do good while in the office.

  13. Bryan Jefferson

    His incremental escalation of the absurb was my only clue. In the beginning it was honest mistake which slowly evolved into the oblivious and finally the nearly forced. His ability to make such gradual transitions between these clue is what was so confusing.

    They are so stragely adult like becasue they have experinced so much death. This answers their own question that death is what gives meaning to life. If it weren’t for the deaths they would have had normal experiences which would not have prepared themselves for more loss, and a desire for fuller understanding.

    As a defense mechanism possibly, his probable, inevitable inadequacies are overshadowed and ultimately forgotten because of those of every other employee. This constant detail hides his fears of seeing himself reflected in the building across. Waving to Anika Bloom.

    The significance is irony. The outlandish acts which they already overlook, thievery, murder, depression, remain seperate and far unequl from their most prized asset efficiency. In the case of the serial killer who is their “fastest typist”

  14. 1 and 2) I think the biggest clue is provided in the fact that these children act and behave like adults. By the end of the story, I was trying to figure this story out, it’s so confusing! You can either take it as a fun read or you can read between the lines. This story is basically “the real world” and a representation of real life. I think that Barthelme’s use of “children” instead of adults worked beautifully for the story, because of the innocence that is associated with children…. Also, i think its strange how these children are so “adult like” and yet they’re so childish concerning all the deaths that occur. They kind of just say “boohoo” and get a new animal to play with.

    3) I think that the “narrator” needs to be “anonymous” because Orozco has this strange monotype language assigned to the narrator throughout the story. I feel that if I was told something about the narrator, it would change that. There was no “mood” created anywhere in the story, I felt for the characters whatever I personally felt for them. Also, I think that if I am told anything about the narrator, I may “doubt” what I am being informed of regarding everyone else in the office.

    4) I think that the significance about the repetition of the phrase “he/she/you might be let go” is that it’s a constant reminder that if you work under someone, then they control you. The trainer continually repeats this term throughout the whole story because Orozco wants his readers to know that in the real world you can’t break a single rule; that people will find ways to bring you down. I think the main point is: if you work for corporate, you’re in trouble.

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