The School on the Fens (8)

By: Robert Waldron
March 30, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the eighth 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 was full of questions about Classical. Why was there so much fear among both students and teachers? Why so much gratuitous meanness from the administration? Why did teachers tolerate the administration? With such gifted kids to teach, why was Classical not the happiest school in Boston?

Simply describing how Classical High existed in an aura of mythology, its golden gates opened to the pursuit of the American Dream with students and parents considering it a privilege to bask in its mythic glow seemed an inadequate response to his questions. For Ed to understand Classical, he needed to meet Walt Smith.

Walt had been a student as well as a teacher at Classical, and more importantly, Farrell had been one of his students. Three years ago Walt and his wife Julia had retired to New Hampshire. When his father had died at ninety-six, Walt inherited enough money to afford his first home. He was an erudite man, a graduate of Harvard where he received a B.A. and M.A. in English. After World War II he settled in the midwest to teach English and Latin at a small liberal arts college. But when he discovered that Boston’s secondary school salary and benefits had outstripped those of his college, he quickly returned to Boston to teach at his alma mater.

It was a chilly November morning. Gazing up at the pewter sky, I feared snow and was tempted to cancel the trip, but I had promised Ed. I picked him up in front of his apartment. As we crossed the border into New Hampshire, he spoke for the first time that morning: “The leaves are mostly gone.”

“You like New England?”

“Yes, but I miss California’s light,” he said.

“Where in California?”

“Big Sur. My family lived there long before the movie stars discovered it. Look, it’s snowing!”

Ever since Bill Thompson’s accident, I had been wary of driving in inclement weather. The snow, however, melted quickly on the road, and I could feel the car’s firm grip of the macadam.

“Tell me how you first met Farrell,” Ed said.

There was no need to ransack my memory. At the opening of school in the assembly hall, Farrell sat with the gym teachers. It was his second year at Classical and my first. In those days we all wore ties, and I remember him wearing the ugliest tie I had ever seen, imprinted with the image of a flamingo.

That year a half a dozen new teachers, including myself, began hanging out at Joe’s Grill, a dive not far from school where Red Sox players periodically dropped in for a beer. The owner, Joe Connors, was pleased we teachers frequented his place, saying we gave it class. He always kept a booth reserved for us, even placing a “Reserved” sign on our table, and we laughed like hell at the small pretension.

Maria was our newly elected union rep, and much of our conversation at Joe’s concerned our upcoming teacher’s strike. She helped to plot the union strategy. On this Friday she had invited Farrell to join us for a drink. When he arrived, I offered to buy him a beer, but he asked for a coke. I remembered my father saying that he mistrusted a man who would not have one beer just to be social. The whole time there he remained silent, but he listened intently to everything, especially to Maria’s talk about the union-strike strategy. Only when someone told a joke did Farrell join in, laughing the loudest. By suppertime we were all in our cups, but Rell departed sober as a judge.

“Maria,” I said, after the door swung shut behind him, “he’s creepy.”

“Come on, give him a chance.”

“But he doesn’t speak,” I said.

“He’s the quiet type,” Maria said, “not like us talking fools.”

“Yeah, but he sure as hell listened,” Jim said, “and didn’t miss a trick.”

Maria continued to invite Rell to our Friday gatherings. A few of us thought she had a crush on him. The following year I was elected to the Faculty Senate, joining ten others — including our president, Maria, and our new treasurer, Farrell. We had won the strike the year before, but we were still having trouble with Headmaster Sawyer who detested unions. “No one tells me how to run my school,” he liked to say. He was an autocrat who based his decisions not on what was educationally sound for young people but upon whim and fancy, or what was politically correct.

At our monthly meetings with Sawyer, he knew what union issues we would introduce and was well armed with facile answers to our valid complaints. We suspected a mole.

Our meetings were usually over by four in the afternoon. After one meeting, I returned to my homeroom to grade tests, stopping around six o’clock. On my way to the parking lot, I passed the headmaster’s suite where I noticed Sawyer and Farrell tête-à-tête in conversation. I had guessed Farrell to be the leak, and I now had the proof.

“He can forever wear his silk suits and cashmere coats,” I said, slowly turning onto Walt’s street, “but I’ll always remember that God-awful tie.”

Ed laughed. “That’s a great yarn.”

“Wish it were a yarn.”

We spiraled up the steep hill to Walt’s home. Julia met us at the door, an attractive woman with smooth skin and silver hair pulled back into a bun. We kissed, and she announced that Walt would be down as soon as the room warmed up again. He’d just recovered from a bout of pneumonia.

She focused her pale-blue eyes on Ed, waiting for an introduction.

“Oh, forgive me, Julia, this is Edward Horgan.”

“You have a handsome face. I’d like to paint you.”

Ed blushed.
 “Credit goes to Mom and Dad’s genes.”

“There’s more to a face than genes.”

“So many books!” Ed said, pointing to several crammed bookcases to deflect attention from him.

Like his best friend Bill Thompson, Walt was a bibliophile. Books towered on every flat surface: floor, tables and chairs. Julia explained to an attentive Ed that Walt’s hobby was book hunting — as Walt described it — with clientele from around the world. It was not unusual for a book buyer in a small village in Sussex, England, she said, to contact Walt to scout a rare book; it was his passion.

Ten minutes later Walt appeared, wearing a bright red bow tie and a cream Irish knit cardigan, but his sweater failed to camouflage his increased poundage. He had cloud-white hair and wore round horn-rimmed glasses. He reminded me of a plump snow-owl.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” said Walt, shaking my hand vigorously, “but when we open that goddamn door, the room temperature plummets. I easily get colds, and at my age I’m not taking any chances.” He turned to Ed. “You’re Edward Horgan. John’s spoken very highly of you.” He shook Ed’s hand.

We settled into comfortable armchairs placed before the raised-hearth’s blazing fire. A mahogany Chippendale table was set with a white teapot and four blue cups and saucers. Julia poured.

“Mr. Horgan, John tells me you want to know about Classical,” Walt said.

“Yes, and please call me Ed.”

“Fine, Ed. First off, it was always a cruel school. Some of the old Yankee masters were mean-spirited men who relished insulting students, especially Irish Catholics and Jews.” He added two sugar cubes to his tea, sipped it, and then added another.

“Others received sadistic pleasure from flunking students,” he continued. “In those days teachers weren’t concerned about making learning fun; they made it an obstacle course, and the more students a master flunked, the better teacher he was. That’s the rationale about how a teacher was judged. To be branded ‘easy’ tainted a teacher’s reputation. Around Christmas began the Great Exodus of flunking students transferring to Lincoln High across the street, a more humane and far less snobby school. But a Classical School diploma was the trophy most kids and their parents craved. Seventh graders were often warned that they might not graduate from Classical. You’ve heard the ‘look to your left and to your right speech?’”

“Yes! And one or both will flunk.” Ed said.

“Ah, Farrell’s preserving Classical’s traditions.”

“A cruel one,” Ed said.

“I agree,” Walt said.

“I don’t understand Farrell,” Ed said, shaking his head.

“He’s not an enigma,” Walt said, shaking his head. “Just the familiar story of an average kid living in the shadow of his brilliant older brother — who went on to make a name for himself in DNA research. No doubt about it, Farrell’s brother was the apple of his father’s eye, but his father got Farrell through Classical.”

“His father?” Ed said.

“A powerful man.”


Walt shot me a look that said We must educate this kid.

“Let me put it this way,” Walt resumed, “if you’re from the right family or have the right political connections, you can easily pass through Classical, even if you’re as thick as that log.” Walt pointed his plump finger toward the wood in the fireplace. “Classical holds a deep respect for power — as does Harvard, where many a Classical grad got by with gentlemen’s C’s. Farrell’s father was a city contractor and a generous contributor to Boston politicians. He once visited me about his son’s truancy; it seems the boy had a predilection for the Combat Zone and adult-rated movies… yes, Rell skipped school a lot. As I said, he was no scholar, more like a thug known for bullying the younger students. After his father’s visit, the kid never spoke to me again. His old man had taught him an important lesson about truancy, one he’d never forget. It’s how Farrell got through Classical — by his father’s influence, wealth, and the back of his hand. And then came Farrell’s meteoric rise from teacher to headmaster. He jumped directly from the classroom into the headmaster’s suite. In Boston, anything can be bought.”

“It sounds Dickensian,” Ed said, wide-eyed.

Walt nodded, “Allow me to tell you a funny story about Farrell. It had become a fad for the boys to wear sweat pants to school. And boys being boys, it became the joke to sneak up behind someone and yank his pants down. It was done in good, clean, adolescent fun, of course. Farrell won the distinction of being the speediest pant-yanker in school, but he got carried away. Most boys were content to embarrass a schoolmate by pulling just the sweats down. Farrell favored pulling sweatpants and underwear down so that the kid was standing stark naked in the corridor. I saw him do it to a junior on the varsity football team who set after Rell with a vengeance.”

Walt laughed until tears spilled from his eyes. “The next day Rell arrived to school with a black eye.”

“How’d he become the headmaster of such a prestigious school?” Ed asked.

“As I said, anything can be bought in Boston. Farrell had two of five School Committee votes and needed one more. He showed up at my old buddy Pat Foley’s school committee office. Pat didn’t know Farrell from Adam. He begged Pat for his vote, but Pat had someone else in mind for the job. When all pleading failed, Farrell said, ‘Name your price.’ Pat had been in Boston politics for years, and knowing the game, he decided to have some fun with Rell. ‘How much you willing to pay?’ ‘A year’s salary,’ said Rell. That was the going rate in those days.

Pat said, ‘How about two years?’ Without hesitating, Rell said, ‘You got it.’ Pat roared with laughter and threw him out of his office, but Rell somehow managed to win Penny Flynn’s vote. How I don’t know because it was well known that Penny had no use for Rell. Rumor is she took the bribe — but I never believed it. She was a straight shooter.”

Ed shook his head in disbelief.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Walt continued. “As I see it, if you can reach a few students and hook them onto the joy of reading, you’ll have accomplished some good. And speaking of books, I noticed you looking at mine. Who’s your favorite writer?”

Ed said: “Eliot.” When they began to discuss Eliot’s religious views, I followed Julia into the kitchen.

“They’re getting along well,” I said.

“Walt likes him and so do I,” Julia said, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. “There’s a clarity about him that’s refreshing.”


“That’s the word that comes to mind,” Julia said, stirring cream into a pot of soup. “His face proclaims a knowledge of what’s right and wrong.”

“I think you’re right about that. Need any help?”

“Thank you, John, but I have everything under control. How’s the fire?”

“Ed threw on another log.”

“Good. Walt blames Classical for his susceptibility to colds; he says the school was kept frigid to keep students sharp and awake, but the real reason was to make them miserable.”

She gazed out the window toward the backyard of lawn and trees laced with snow. Sighing, she turned to me, took my hands in hers and squeezed them, “I’m so glad you and Edward are here. Walt gets so lonely.”

“I thought Walt loved living in the country?”

“He does, but he misses the camaraderie of men. Bill Thompson’s death was a terrible blow.” She poured soup into a white ceramic tureen and covered it with aluminum foil.

“Bill made the mistake of opposing Farrell,” I said.

“He called here just before he died. Walt’s been upset ever since. Whenever I mention Bill, he shakes his head. It has something to do with that school, but I don’t want to discuss Classical. Follow me.”

Julia led me into her newly built art studio above the garage. A large room with lots of windows, it offered striking views of the surrounding hills. The remaining wall space was crowded with Julia’s landscapes, still life’s, and portraits. I stood before an oil painting of Walt capturing his owlish aspect.

“You like it?” she asked, her eyes shining.

“Yes. It’s Walt,” I said. I gazed appreciatively around the room. “The life of an artist, how I envy you!”

“School getting you down?”

“Only that we rarely see the results of our work. Artists know immediately if they’ve accomplished what they’ve set out to do.”

She nodded sympathetically.

“Your views are spectacular!”

“It’s a joy to watch the four seasons from these windows, but…”


“I’m blessed with an outward gaze,” she said, “but Walt possesses an inward gaze.”

“Inward gaze?”

“Walt was so depressed about Bill’s death, he couldn’t get out of bed. Not even his precious books offered consolation… it broke my heart because I couldn’t help him. Until the birds.”

“The birds?”

“Yes, if it weren’t for the birds…”

Our eyes connected. Birds as a solution for depression was so absurd that we both laughed with tears streaming down our cheeks.

“There are lots of birds around here,” she resumed, knuckling her eyes. “For his birthday I bought Walt binoculars and a guidebook of New England birds. I put out a bird feeder, and Walt spent hours observing them come and go, and to stimulate his interest, I began to paint them. And Walt developed an outward gaze. See?”

I nodded.

Julia’s artistic talent showed in her table beautifully arranged with silver, crystal and china, and in the middle stood a tall, elegant Waterford vase overflowing with white mums.

Lunch was lobster bisque, lobster salad, and for dessert homemade cheesecake.

“Ed, you mentioned having second thoughts about teaching?” Walt asked.

“It’s so hard to motivate students,” Ed said between forkfuls of cheesecake. “They find everything boring.”

“It’s harder today than it was in my day. You’re competing with so many distractions like TV, movies, radios. So much noise. Students haven’t a clue about the value of silence.”

“They become fidgety after five minutes in class,” Ed said. “Forget a half hour lecture. They like one thing — vocabulary tests.”

“Another Classical tradition,” said Walt, chuckling. “Classical students are grade grubbers and will do anything to improve their average as long as it doesn’t require too much work or thought.”

We returned to the living room, and Ed replenished the fire while Julia poured sherry for Walt and Ed and coffee for her and me. Ed was gazing at a painting above the fireplace.

“I know that church,” Ed said. “It’s the Duomo in Florence, isn’t it?”
 Both Walt and Julia looked at one another. Ed intuited their joy in remembering Florence and plied them with questions about their trip. Into the afternoon they shared their Florentine experiences with names like Giotto, Donatello, Michaelangelo floating in and out of conversation.

As we were leaving, Walt hoisted himself from his chair, stepped toward a glass bookcase from which he removed a volume and tenderly placed it into Ed’s hands.

“Since you appreciate Eliot, I want you to have this book. Please accept it as an early Christmas gift.” It was a first edition of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Ed’s favorite play.

Ed effusively thanked him, and as Julia helped him on with his coat, I noticed her slipping a small wrapped package into his coat pocket. I later learned it was her painting of a rare tanager.

On our way back to Boston, Ed repeatedly thanked me for introducing him to Walt and Julia, describing them as a “generously kind” couple.

“Any insights about Classical?” I asked.

“Sounds as if Farrell was an abused child, and as they say, abused children grow up to become abusers.”

“Perhaps,” I said, grudgingly.

“Why do you remain at Classical? With your experience and background you could go anywhere.”

“I love Classical as much as I hate it,” I said, the answer I gave Iris years back when she asked the same question. “I once took a leave of absence to teach at a Catholic college, but I’m best at teaching high-school kids.”

Ed nodded sympathetically.

“Do you hate Farrell?” he asked.

“I pity him.”

“Has he any good qualities?”

“He loves Classical.”


“Yes, in his own perverted way. But he’d also like to destroy it.”

“His way of getting back at his father and the teachers who failed him?”

“Very insightful, Ed. But I also suspect he just enjoys being cruel.”

On the rest of the journey home we listened to the radio. Or rather I did. I was convinced Ed was considering whether or not he wanted to commit himself to a career at Classical.

It would be a great loss for the school to lose him, but Classical could easily ruin someone as good and gentle as Ed, and he might indeed be better off elsewhere. But I hoped he would stay.


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”