The School on the Fens (3)

By: Robert Waldron
February 23, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the third installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.



Ed quietly stared out the window of the teachers’ lounge, so pensive I felt reluctant to disturb him.

I had first met him in late September. Our English department chairman Bill Thompson had tragically died in a car crash; Ed had been hired to assume Thompson’s classes on a temporary basis.

The teachers’ room was clouded with cigarette smoke, crowded, and noisy. Conversation ranged from the theme of death in Lorca’s poetry to speculations about Virginia Woolf’s sex life (and Lorca’s for that matter). Sitting next to a table with its constantly brewing Mr. Coffee, I corrected my seemingly endless senior essays on whether or not Captain Ahab was mad. Most of my students opted for madness.

Then prophecy entered our conversation.

“Who’ll be Farrell’s next victim?” asked Maria Felix, our resident linguist and feminist, and likely the most brilliant member of Classical’s faculty. Maria was physically frail, but her strong, vibrant voice served as a faithful servant to her razor-sharp mind, quick to cut to the heart of any issue.

“I wish teachers weren’t so afraid to stand up for themselves,” she lamented. “Farrell’s a bully, therefore a coward. If he knows you’re not afraid of him, he’ll steer clear of you. Today I received a warm ‘Good morning’ from him even though I signed in ten minutes late… and I won’t receive a ‘Kindly note’.”

Farrell’s threats were scribbled on yellow paper and began with “Kindly desist from.”

“Maria, be careful,” said Jim Ford, looking up from his volume of Hamlet, “he can make your life miserable.”

“He won’t,” Maria said, correcting French quizzes. “I remember the days when he was swathed in kaleidoscopic polyester.”

Her exaggerated utterance of “kaleidoscopic” made us laugh. When he first arrived at Classical, Farrell could easily have won the faculty’s worst dressed prize.

Jim said, “Remember, a coward’s raison d’être is to get even.”

Merci, mon ami, but don’t worry, I’ll be careful, it’s our way of life here, isn’t it?”

Maria had already paid a high price for her opposition to Farrell. After refusing his order to scale her Advanced Placement French grades, he took away her class, ridiculing her teaching techniques as outdated and unfair to students. Maria was a demanding teacher, but parents and students alike knew she was undoubtedly our best language teacher. It broke her heart to lose her AP class to Carla DeStephano, the least respected teacher in her department, all because a few prominent parents complained to Farrell about her course’s rigor. In Maria’s class you worked for an A, unlike other teachers who gave A’s out like candy in order to be popular with their students — and their parents.

The door opened, and a handsome young man entered, “Sorry to disturb you, but I’m Edward Horgan and looking for Mr. John Duncan.”

Wearing a blue blazer, gray slacks with a crease that could cut, and tasseled loafers, Ed was in his early 20s, and looked it even though his ebony hair was lightly streaked with white. Appointed to be his mentor teacher, I stood and identified myself and shook his hand, asking him if he had ever taught before.

“Two months at a private school near Lenox, Massachusetts,” Ed said, “but I’m told a public school is a lot different.”

“Oh, you’ll catch on quickly,” Maria said, evaluating him over her half-glasses. “Classical is like a private school; our students have to pass an exam to enter, but they don’t pay tuition.”

“Then it’s a school for the gifted?” Ed said.

Maria nodded, reaching out to shake Ed’s hand, “I’m Maria Felix. You know anything about Classical’s history?”

Ed smiled, pleased by Maria’s direct manner.

“One of the oldest schools in America, isn’t it?”

I poured him coffee while Maria corrected him, “Classical is America’s oldest school, founded in 1635 by the Puritans, predating Harvard by two years.”

“I feel honored to be here,” Ed said, humbly, “and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.”

He was to begin the second marking period with two formidable plays: King Lear with the seniors and Hamlet with the juniors.

He was especially excited about teaching Lear, a play he claimed to know well, having played the role of the evil Edmund in a college production, but with his innocently kind face, he seemed more suited to play the saintly Edgar.

Because he was a novice and looked so — so guileless —I feared his seniors would take advantage of him. Students viewed novice teachers as fair game for classroom highjinks. Seasoned seniors could easily and quickly chew and spit him out before he knew what had happened. To save him from such humiliation, I suggested that we weekly meet one-on-one to discuss his progress and that I would also periodically visit his classes; the seniors would then know he had support behind him.

“Handsome man,” Maria said after Ed left. “I’d kill for eyes like his.”

“His eyes?” I said.

“They’re sapphire blue and his eyelashes, well, a woman would kill for them.”

“He’s absolutely gorgeous!” said Norma Tracy, sitting in the far corner, smoking a cigarette. Tall, blonde (from a bottle she confessed) and shapely, Norma’s smoker’s voice was deeper than most men’s. She stepped up to a mirror, ran a comb through her silky hair, redefined her lips with fresh lipstick and turned to Maria and me, “I’m off to dazzle my juniors, and that’s a feat!” She laughed her basso profundo laugh, “As to that young man, John, he will need to be protected.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Norma was famous for regaling her students with stories about her life, true and apocryphal, and her students were fiercely loyal to her. Envious teachers, however, had dubbed her Classical’s Miss Jean Brodie.

At the door she suddenly swirled around à la Loretta Young, “If eyes are the windows of the soul, then that young man’s soul is heavenly.”

Maria nodded appreciatively, “We could use a bit of heaven around here.”


I spoke Ed’s name twice before he turned around.

“Farrell’s a lunatic!” he said. “Scott Feeny was so frightened he wet his pants.”

“Was he sent home?”

“Farrell refused to let him to go home, so I took him to the school nurse. Terrifying children!” He shook his head in disbelief.

“You knew what the assembly was about?”

He nodded. Farrell had come to him, looking for a student with the initials SF. His only student with such initials was Scott Feeny. Farrell ordered Ed to escort the boy to the office. “He verbally tore the kid to pieces,” Ed said, his voice quavering with anger, “and suspended him for three days and called his parents for a meeting here in school.”

“How’s Scott?”

“He was terrified but quickly owned up to it and was genuinely contrite. He’s a good kid; he traced his initials into the chair out of sheer boredom, but with a little varnish, it’ll be barely noticeable. No need to publicly humiliate him in front of all his classmates.” He paused. “For God’s sake, it wasn’t pornographic graffiti!”

“Where does Scott live?”

“What difference does it make?”


“South Boston.”

“Explains the assembly,” I said more to myself than to Ed.

“Excuse me?”

“Scott’s from the city’s poorest section. Were he from wealthy Beacon Hill or Back Bay or even West Roxbury, such defacing would’ve been ignored. Understand?”

After a long silence, Ed said, “Social class is the game here?”

I nodded and explained how many of us had tried to reason with Farrell. Because Maria at first liked Farrell, she had made a concerted effort to influence him for the good, but even she concluded it was a waste of time and energy.

“Nothing can be done?”

I shook my head. Ed’s eyes widened at my resignation.

“He isn’t fit to be the headmaster,” he said.

“I agree, but he’s well connected.”

“If I were Scott’s father,” Ed said, “I’d demand Farrell’s dismissal.”

Ed’s fresh outrage was a jolting reminder of how inured we Classical teachers had become to Farrell’s reign of terror, but Rell, our nickname for him, was beyond criticism. He had cleverly cultivated the city’s elite by strongly advocating for their children. No matter how mediocre they might be as students, he skillfully maneuvered them into prestigious colleges. The PTA president’s son, a mediocre student — he somehow got admitted into Harvard. For such favors, parents and their children remained forever grateful and loyal. He had also won the support of the city’s two leading newspapers, no mean accomplishment because each newspaper loathed the other.

“Tim O’Donnell is from Southie, isn’t he?” Ed said.

I nodded and informed him that Tim had just asked me for a college recommendation.

“He’s an incredibly talented writer,” Ed said. “When I asked the class to write about the teenage problem most ignored by parents and schools, he wrote about depression and suicide.”

“He’s probably right.”

Ed nodded. “But what’s disturbing is that Tim so realistically described depression that I wondered if he suffers from it. Can you fill me in?”

“When I talked to him, he hinted at something he was ashamed of.”

“Depressed people are often filled with shame.”

“Let’s keep an eye on him. If you notice anything unusual, call his mother and also inform his guidance counselor.”

“Should I talk with him?”

“Why not?” I said. “He’ll either tell you to mind your own business or the truth. But if he admits to being depressed, you’ll have to report it to his guidance counselor.”

“Wouldn’t I be betraying him?”

“You’re his teacher, not his pal.”

“Can’t be a teacher and a friend to my students, can I?”

“Disabuse yourself of that notion, a dangerous one.”


“Take my word for it.”

Ed reminded me of my young self when I too believed that as a teacher I could also be a friend to my students, but experience has taught me otherwise: my job is to teach literature, not to widen my social circle.


Stay tuned!

ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”