The School on the Fens (13)
May 4, 2013
HILOBROW is proud to present the thirteenth 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.
I elbowed my way through a noisy and crowded hallway to arrive at the teachers’ room where the roar inside equaled that of the kids’ racket outside. Over a dozen teachers were talking at once. I caught Jim Ford’s voice, “This is the last straw,” he said, “Farrell’s gone too far.”
I inched my way through the crowd, coming come face to face with Maria.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Insane isn’t it?” Maria said, laughing almost hysterically. “The whole faculty is outraged.”
“Farrell’s appointed the Knife assistant headmaster!”
“Murkin? I don’t believe it! She’s been here only two years.”
“She’s got it,” Maria said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Farrell is so furious over Badger’s letter that he’s made her assistant headmaster. If anyone can sniff out the Badger, it’s Murkin.”
Virginia Murkin had been appointed the Registrar the first year she arrived at Classical, chosen over a number of Farrell’s sycophants salivating for this juicy plum of a job requiring no teaching. Shortly after her appointment, the Twins had dubbed her the “Knife.” According to them, she’d stab anyone in the back to win favor with Farrell.
She swiftly won notoriety as a master of minutiae, reporting to Farrell every error in attendance and grading she could sniff out. Teachers were regularly summoned to the office, only to discover they’d inadvertently marked a student tardy or absent or bubbled in an incorrect grade on an IBM sheet.
“What did you expect?” Maria said, her voice swelling above the others. “First rate headmasters surround themselves with first rate people; second rate headmasters surround themselves with third rate people.”
“You’re in a complimentary mode, Maria,” Jim said, “Rell a second-rater?”
“Touché! From now on we must live defensively, arm ourselves from head to toe. ‘Cover yourself’ is our motto. And now — may I have your complete attention — I have an announcement.”
Maria now stood in the middle of the room and waited until all was quiet. “Murkin boasted she was a rising star, eclipsing even the Twins… and we’ve speculated about her sugar daddy. Are you ready?”
A chorus of “Yes!”
“She’s the niece of the mayor!”
Our roar of disgust must have been heard in the headmaster’s suite, for just as it died down, the door swung open.
“You people are to report to your homerooms now!” Farrell shouted.
Several teachers fled through the door. Maria looked at Farrell and calmly said, “I’ll go when the pre-homeroom bell rings as stated in our union contract.”
Farrell glared at her and then slammed the door.
“Good for you Maria,” Norma said. She had no homeroom and proceeded to light up a cigarette with a hand sparkling with a diamond. She exhaled a narrow plume of smoke toward the ceiling and said, “That bitch Murkin! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, at Classical it’s better to be cute than to look cute.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder as if to say, “Look at me, how was I overlooked?” At any other school, she would likely have been an administrator: she was highly intelligent, loved kids, and she was a beauty to boot, but she lacked the one essential ingredient to advance at Classical: she’d never kiss anyone’s ass, particularly Rell’s.
Ed walked in with his own announcement, “I’ve received a ‘Kindly Note’; I’m to kindly report to the headmaster next Monday.”
“Any reason given?” Jim asked.
“No. But I don’t like it.”
“Part of Farrell’s terror tactics,” Jim said, “to keep the teacher in anxiety later to discover you forgot to sign in one morning. Be sure to take a union rep along with you.”
“I’ll tag along if you don’t mind,” I said.
“Thanks. I suspect it’s about Timothy O’Donnell’s grade.”
As a union rep, I have consoled many a teacher who had mysteriously been added to Farrell’s hit list.
When three years ago Rell had demoted five heads of department in one fell swoop, they were stunned because they had been completely loyal to him. One had even secured a school committee vote for the headmaster’s position. Although Rell demanded absolute loyalty from his inner circle, he himself was loyal to no one.
Abe Silverman had been the head of the history department for fifteen years and had mentored Farrell when he started teaching at Classical. He took the loss of his chairmanship hard, at first furious and then baffled about why Rell had turned against him after he’d been so kind to him as a novice teacher. When Rell began visiting Abe’s class and demanding to see his plan and grade books, Abe suspected he had somehow run afoul of him and wracked his memory for any breach he may have committed but couldn’t come up with anything.
Finishing our morning coffee in the cafeteria, I noticed Abe’s trembling hands.
“Abe, what’s wrong?”
He took a deep breath, “I’m meeting with Farrell… he’s out to get me.”
“He wants me out, simple as that.”
“Have you thought about transferring to another school?”
“I’ve given Classical the best years of my life… and I’ll retire from this school.”
I understood his sentiments. “If you want, I’ll go in with you.”
He was fully aware of Rell’s hatred of the teachers’ union, but he also knew there was no one else to turn to for protection. With a little coaxing, I convinced him to let me accompany him. When we sat down in Farrell’s office, Rell ignored me and started to berate Abe for flunking so many students.
“Six kids isn’t a lot,” Abe said in a quavering voice.
“It’s a lot to me. Have you reached out to these kids and tried to help them?”
“Yes, but they don’t do their work.”
“Your job is to motivate them.”
He harangued him so much I finally said, “Mr. Silverman has done nothing wrong and doesn’t deserve this kind of harassment. Are you ordering him to change his grades?”
“I’m ordering him to be a better teacher. I’ve received a lot of complaints from parents.”
“What kind of complaints?” I asked.
“Students don’t understand him with his accent, and they don’t get their tests back in a timely manner.” Abe’s family had left Germany just before the war, settling in Brazil, and as a young adult he and his family immigrated to America.
Abe said, “I have the same accent I’ve always had, and no one has ever complained. And I return students’ tests within a week’s time.”
“A week!” said Farrell. “They should have them back the next day.”
“You didn’t when you were a teacher. They had to wait a whole semester to get anything from you.” Everyone knew about Farrell’s laziness, always the last one to pass in his grade sheets.
Abe had played his trump card, and Farrell was silenced, but in June Abe received for the first time in his career an “Unsatisfactory” evaluation.
I met him on the last school day in the parking lot.
“I’m unsatisfactory,” he said, his eyes welling, “I can’t believe it… I’m a good teacher, aren’t I?”
“Yes, and everybody knows it.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You can challenge it,” I said, “but no evaluation has ever been overturned.”
“That’s it then. I’ll retire.”
He did retire and was dead within a year. I spoke with his wife at his shiva; she said he was a broken man, never recovered from the “unsatisfactory” evaluation. I discovered later that Abe had unknowingly flunked the son of one of Rell’s buddies. What surprised me was that Rell had a buddy.
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”