What are the best short stories which are set in school, or which focus on school and one’s schooldays? There are plenty of stories which are ‘set in schools’ in the sense of being set reading for schoolchildren, but it’s harder to find some canonical and classic short stories which are about schooldays.
The following stories are all about school in one way or another. In one story, a couple of schoolboys play truant and bunk off school; in another, two schoolchildren of the future learn about old-fashioned schooling; and in yet another, we find ourselves observing schoolchildren on another planet, Venus.
What unites all of these short fictions is a focus on the experience of schooldays and how those formative years affect us; they are also about how schoolchildren tend to behave with one another.
James Joyce, ‘An Encounter’.
This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of the Wild West for me and the confused puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened one of my consciences. But when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me …
This story, from Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, is narrated by a man who is recalling an episode from his childhood, and specifically his schooldays in Dublin. The boy recounts how one of his schoolfriends, Leo Dillon, introduced him and a number of other boys to the adventure and excitement of the Wild West, before the two of them played truant from school one day.
They encounter a strange old man who seems to take an unusual interest in the boys’ love lives. This is a story best aimed at slightly older readers, given the unsavoury aspect of the strange old man …
Isaac Asimov, ‘The Fun They Had’.
This is a short story by the Russian-born American writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92). Like Asimov’s novel The Naked Sun, this story is one that has taken on new significance in the wake of 2020 and the shift to remote learning and working, and the themes of this 1951 story are as relevant to our own time as they were over seventy years ago when Asimov wrote it.
In the story, which is set in the year 2157, two children find an old paper book and reflect on how quaint it is, when compared with television screens on which they read in their own time. Stories about school, especially very short stories that are just a few pages long, lend themselves to study at school, and Asimov’s tale is light enough and brief enough to fit the bill, while also carrying some intriguing commentary on education and technology, among other things.
Ray Bradbury, ‘All Summer in a Day’.
This is a 1954 short story by the American science-fiction author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). The story is set on Venus, where the sun only comes out once every seven years for a couple of hours; the rest of the time, the sun is hidden behind clouds and rains fall constantly.
‘All Summer in a Day’ is about a group of schoolchildren who have grown up on Venus, the sons and daughters of ‘rocket men and women’ who came to the planet from Earth, as the children prepare to experience the first ‘summer’ on Venus that they can remember. But one of the children, a young girl, remembers experiencing rain when she lived back on Earth. The other children grow jealous of her experience, and decide to act – with devastating results.
Donald Barthelme, ‘The School’.
‘The School’ is probably the best-known short story by the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89), whose work is sometimes labelled as ‘postmodernist’ (a label he was not entirely comfortable with, but which he accepted) and, occasionally, ‘metafiction’ (a label he was less happy with).
Published in the New Yorker in 1974, ‘The School’ is a short story about death, in which a series of animals and, eventually, children die at a school. One of the teachers at the school narrates these events, and the story ends with a discussion between the teacher and his pupils about the meaning of life when all life is filled with, and must end in, death.
Sandra Cisneros, ‘Eleven’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best school-set stories with a very short piece of contemporary fiction. ‘Eleven’ is a short story by the American writer Sandra Cisneros (born 1954), who is known for her novel The House on Mango Street among other works.
In this story, a girl’s eleventh birthday is ruined when her teacher forces her to take responsibility for somebody else’s sweater. The narrator bursts into tears in front of her classmates and laments the fact that she isn’t older. Of all the stories included on this list, ‘Eleven’ is the one which delves most deeply into the psyche of a young schoolchild and her experience in school.