The short stories The School by Donald Barthelme and A & P by John Updike take place primarily in two conventional social institutions, a school and a place of employment respectively. Within these two social institutions, we see how quite often such institutions are responsible for shaping identity and behavior in the individuals that are impacted by them. In Barthelme's The School, the students have their identity and behavior shaped by a series of projects that are meant to help develop nurturing skills in them but result in the untimely deaths of snakes, trees, a puppy, and even an adopted Korean orphan. In A & P, a teenage cashier named Sammy learns that to maintain one's own identity in opposition to conventional norms and values exacts a heavy sacrifice upon the individual. In both stories, the impact of social institutions demonstrates how identity and behavior are shaped in society.
In The School, the story is narrated by the teacher of a group of students who tries to develop a sense of responsibility and nurturing in them through a series of projects aimed at watching life unfold. As the narrator explains about a tree-plating project at the opening of the story, "ąthat was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systemsąand also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible," (Barthelme 1). However, from mice and salamanders to puppies and trees, all of these projects end in premature death.
Despite the premature death of all of the different flora and fauna of the student projects, such an ending teaches them lessons if not the ones originally intended. For example, when the gerbils and mice and salamanders die, the children now "know not to carry them around in plastic bags" (Barthelme 1). After every animal or plant the student's attempt to nurture dies, they begin to believe "there [is] something wrong with the school" (Barthelme 2)