by david barthelme
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.
It wouldn't have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before
the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. But I think that the
snakes - well, the reason that the snakes kicked off was that ... you
remember, the boiler was shut off for four days because of the strike,
and that was explicable. It was something you could explain to the
kids because of the strike. I mean, none of their parents would let
them cross the picket line and they knew there was a strike going on
and what it meant. So when things got started up again and we found
the snakes they weren't too disturbed.
With the herb gardens it was probably a case of overwatering, and at
least now they know not to overwater. The children were very
conscientious with the herb gardens and some of them probably ... you
know, slipped them a little extra water when we weren't looking. Or
maybe ... well, I don't like to think about sabotage, although it did
occur to us. I mean, it was something that crossed our minds. We were
thinking that way probably because before that the gerbils had died,
and the white mice had died, and the salamander ... well, now they
know not to carry them around in plastic bags.
Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no
surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they're belly-up
on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input
at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year,
you just have to hurry past it.
We weren't even supposed to have a puppy.
We weren't even supposed to have one, it was just a puppy the Murdoch
girl found under a Gristede's truck one day and she was afraid the
truck would run over it when the driver had finished making his
delivery, so she stuck it in her knapsack and brought it to the school
with her. So we had this puppy. As soon as I saw the puppy I thought,
Oh Christ, I bet it will live for about two weeks and then... And
that's what it did. It wasn't supposed to be in the classroom at all,
there's some kind of regulation about it, but you can't tell them they
can't have a puppy when the puppy is already there, right in front of
them, running around on the floor and yap yap yapping. They named it
Edgar - that is, they named it after me. They had a lot of fun running
after it and yelling, "Here, Edgar! Nice Edgar!" Then they'd laugh
like hell. They enjoyed the ambiguity. I enjoyed it myself. I don't
mind being kidded. They made a little house for it in the supply
closet and all that. I don't know what it died of. Distemper, I
guess. It probably hadn't had any shots. I got it out of there before
the kids got to school. I checked the supply closet each morning,
routinely, because I knew what was going to happen. I gave it to the
And then there was this Korean orphan that the class adopted through
the Help the Children program, all the kids brought in a quarter a
month, that was the idea. It was an unfortunate thing, the kid's name
was Kim and maybe we adopted him too late or something. The cause of
death was not stated in the letter we got, they suggested we adopt
another child instead and sent us some interesting case histories, but
we didn't have the heart. The class took it pretty hard, they began (I
think, nobody ever said anything to me directly) to feel that maybe
there was something wrong with the school. But I don't think there's
anything wrong with the school, particularly, I've seen better and
I've seen worse. It was just a run of bad luck. We had an
extraordinary number of parents passing away, for instance. There
were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and
four killed together in a car accident. One stroke. And we had the
usual heavy mortality rate among the grandparents, or maybe it was
heavier this year, it seemed so. And finally the tragedy.
The tragedy occurred when Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo were
playing over where they're excavating for the new federal office
building. There were all these big wooden beams stacked, you know, at
the edge of the excavation. There's a court case coming out of that,
the parents are claiming that the beams were poorly stacked. I don't
know what's true and what's not. It's been a strange year.
I forgot to mention Billy Brandt's father who was knifed fatally when
he grappled with a masked intruder in his home.
One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they
go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas
and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don't
know, I don't know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody
knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And
I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. 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 -
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don't like it.
I said, that's sound.
They said, it's a bloody shame!
I said, it is.
They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant)
so that we can see how it is done? We know you like Helen.
I do like Helen but I said that I would not.
We've heard so much about it, they said, but we've never
I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done
as a demonstration. Helen looked out the window.
They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an
assertion of value, we are frightened.
I said that they shouldn't be frightened (although I am often
frightened) and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and
embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each
other. The children were excited. Then there was a knock on the door,
I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered