The School on the Fens (18)

By: Robert Waldron
June 8, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the eighteenth 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.



The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a two-minute stroll from Classical. When Mrs. Jack Gardner built her mansion, she named it Fenway Court, and with the help of one of the world’s greatest art critics, Bernard Berenson, an alumnus of Classical, she adorned it with Renaissance masters like Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and Vermeer.

Over the years the Gardner Museum and Classical High have maintained a close relationship. Not only does the museum offer special tours and lectures for our students, but it also accommodates important Classical events, like the annual fund-raising for the Classical Foundation, scheduled before Christmas, a date deliberately chosen to find people in a generous disposition.

But there was something else planned for this “Evening at the Gardner,” and Maria was the first to hear of it.

Seated near the window of the teachers’ lounge, she looked up from correcting her students’ essays. “Rumor is that Rell’s reviving his Pilot School idea and is scheduled to present it at next week’s fund-raiser.”

“It was defeated last year,” Jim said, looking up from his own pile of tests. “What makes him think he can ram it through this year?”

“More new teachers,” Maria said, “He only needs a majority of the faculty.”

“Would Rell chance another humiliating defeat?” I said.

“Then why was Jim Slater in his office yesterday?” asked Maria, staring at me over her reading glasses.

Maybe Iris had indeed guessed right

The Pilot School was initially Jim Slater’s brainchild. As a union rep, I suddenly realized, I would be used as the bait to convince the faculty to vote for his Pilot School. My reward: the chairmanship of the English department.

“Are you attending the party at the Gardner?” I asked.

Maria shrugged, “I think some of us should be there.”

“I’ve never been to the Gardner,” Ed said, sitting in Bill Thompson’s chair reading Murder in the Cathedral.

“You haven’t!” Maria exclaimed. “It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Let’s all go, it’ll be fun.”

Jim said, “I rather not go anywhere Rell goes, but you’re right, Maria, someone should be there. And, Ed, it’s a place you should visit.”

It was settled, three of us would attend.

It was a Thursday night, two weeks before Christmas. The school parking lot was jammed with cars as was the adjacent Simmons College lot. Judging by the Cadillacs, Porches, BMWs, Jaguars, and Mercedes Benzes, I would have to say our graduates had done well in life.

The museum is a pale brick building facing the Muddy River. We walked into an open inner court topped by a glass ceiling. The scent of flowers was like a breath of air from the Mediterranean, a waft of spring at the beginning of a New England winter. Mozart, played by our school’s string ensemble, swelled from the Spanish cloister, now crowded with people queuing up at several wine bars and tables laden with an array of expensive-looking hors d’oeuvres.

Ed’s “Wow!” at his first sight of the museum’s interior delighted Maria as she pointed out the courtyard’s mosaic floor and the Roman statues and Venetian balconies. Mrs. Gardner had imported only Europe’s best art, she explained, for her new home that the locals had dubbed the “Palace.”

“You didn’t say it was Black Tie,” Ed said, his eyebrows arching when he realized that the both of us were under-dressed.

“Would it make a difference?” I asked.

“I do have a black tie!” His gray eyes shimmered in fun.

I wore my one blue suit, Ed his blue blazer and gray slacks. Maria looked attractive in a black pantsuit and pearls. She led Ed to the Dutch Room to see her favorite painting, Rembrandt’s youthful self-portrait. I lined up for a glass of wine. Norma Tracy and Brenda Burke stood together in the Spanish cloister near Sargent’s El Jaleo. Norma was elegant in a black silk dress, Brenda just as chic in a navy blue suit accented by a crimson Hermes scarf.

“You both look rather grand tonight,” I said.

“One can’t allow the grads to outdo their former teachers,” Norma said. “Can’t you feel the presence of Mrs. Jack Gardner? I love this place! When I was a teenager, I used to hang out here, pretending it was my home. In those days I’d usually have the place to myself, but now it’s usually mobbed.”

Norma knew the museum like the back of her hand, and over the years had become an expert on its collection, so well versed that the museum curator, Jill Townsend, had hired her on several occasions to lecture visiting high school and touring groups. With a flair for the dramatic, she was always a hit.

Norma’s eyes suddenly turned hard, and I turned to find the object of her gaze: Standing under one of the Gothic arches surrounding the inner court were Farrell and Slater.

Attired in a well-tailored tux, Farrell looked striking; Slater, short and bald, wore a tux far too big for him, looking like Rell’s poor relative. Over the years Slater had proved himself a clever school bureaucrat, winning high-paying jobs by writing grants for the city’s school department. He was a pro at advocating politically correct educational pabulum. When it came to the how of educating young people, Slater and Farrell were like reeds in the wind of the fens, bending to whatever was currently “innovative.”

With an obedient Slater tagging behind, Farrell glided from one group to another group of guests who received him like a conquering hero. As much as I tried, I could not fathom his popularity. I had to admit that with age Rell looked better than ever. His daily regimen at an exclusive gym, his expensive wardrobe, his new Cadillac outside in the lot were all paid for by the Classical Foundation — not bad for a guy who graduated at the bottom of his class.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” I turned around to face an attractive woman dressed in a sapphire-blue gown with a single large diamond at her throat. She saw my puzzlement.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she said, smiling. “A tiny crystal candle.”

“Kimberly!” We embraced.

Kimberly Miles had been one of my favorite students as well as a member of Classical’s first graduating class to include women. She and I slaved over her college essay, a poignant chronicle about her mother’s caring for her paraplegic father. After winning acceptance to Wellesley, she thanked me with a gift of a small crystal candle.

“Your candle still stands on my mantelpiece.”

“I’ll never forget your kindness.”

She squeezed my hand in gratitude.

“So, you’re a member of the Classical Foundation?”

“Let’s put it this way,” she said, her Boston accent taking over, “I was recruited by the Foundation for my husband.” Her husband was a wealthy corporate lawyer.

Ed and Maria returned from their tour of the second floor. Maria had also taught Kimberly and after a few minutes of reminiscing, Kimberly turned to Ed.

“What do you teach?”

“I’m trying to teach English literature.”

“Keep on trying. Mr. Duncan’s class meant a lot to me when I was going through a rough time. Now what’s this about a Pilot School? I don’t want anyone tampering with my alma mater.”

Maria filled her in. Kimberly, it turned out, felt as we did. “Why change a school that has successfully educated generations of Boston students? If anything, Farrell should reinforce what now exists, not change it. You know the cliché, if it’s not broken—”

“Don’t fix it!” we all agreed.

“My husband hasn’t a clue about how important this school is,” she continued, “for working-class kids like myself. He went to Choate. He’s old-name and old-money. So he’s excited about this pilot program, because supposedly it will help poor kids.”

Maria shook her head, “The elitists have never understood the purpose of a school like Classical.” She realized how angry she sounded, “Forgive me for being so annoyed, but do-gooders sometimes drive me crazy.”

Kimberly reached over to squeeze Maria’s hand, “I understand exactly where you’re coming from.”

“Your husband should establish a scholarship,” Maria said, encouraged by Kimberly’s gesture. “That’ll do more good. Students still need structure, discipline and a challenging curriculum. It was good enough for you, wasn’t it?”

“Miss Felix, your French class was so exciting and God, did you work us! An hour every night on French alone. My husband and I travel a lot, and he’s forgotten most of his French. But not me!”

“So much for Choate,” Maria said triumphantly.

Just then Slater announced to the crowd that Farrrell was ready to deliver his address in the second floor music room. The crowd headed toward the staircase. The gowned women gingerly ascended the stone stairs. Two bejeweled, blue-haired women in front of us were discussing Classical High, one saying, “I’m so terribly pleased Boston’s children have such an excellent public school to attend. Headmaster Farrell said Classical is even better now than when he attended it… such a nice man.”

I smiled, “People love mythology, don’t they?”

Maria laughed, “Yes, just what Boston needs, more mythology.”

The women turned to glare at us.

When Ed entered the Music Room, he gasped, “It’s like an eighteenth century salon!”

Maria and I laughed at his delight.

“When I was a college student,” I said, “I attended my first concert here, and because students got in free, I became a regular.”

The room was long and rectangular with a dais at the end where stood a grand piano and a podium. The walls were draped with exquisite tapestries woven in Brussels in the mid-sixteenth century, depicting the life of Abraham. Ed left us to peruse them, but soon returned, remarking that it was too dark to see. I pointed out to him a lovely Madonna and Child by Lippo Memmi displayed on a pedestal while Maria claimed for us three seats in the middle of the room.

The room filled up slowly. The city’s elite were present: the mayor, the school superintendent, the school committee, the president of the city council and members of the Vault, a group of Boston’s movers and shakers, and a goodly number of Beacon Hill and Back Bay Brahmins. There was no lack of mink and diamonds. When Farrell finally arrived at the dais, a loud round of applause filled the room.

“Can you believe this applause?” I said to Maria.

“Baffling, isn’t it,” she said, shaking her head. “If you think about it too much, you’ll go mad.”

Ed returned with Norma and Brenda.

“You two want to be seen with us?” I said.

Brenda said, “Your paranoia doesn’t become you.”

Were we paranoid? Had we somehow failed to see Farrell’s greatness?

Ed whispered, “Which Farrell is the real one: The one who excoriated Scott Feeny or this one?”

“A conundrum, isn’t it?”

“Farrell’s an artist,” Ed said, taking his seat.

“A con-artist?” I said.

Ed laughed. “No. More like a Venetian mask-maker.”

“But artists capture truth, don’t they?”

“Everyone wears a mask, John.”

Was Ed mocking me? Was I the novice, he the mentor? He saw my perplexity and laughed, a gentle laugh, not meant to hurt, reminding me why I liked him.

Jill Townsend stood at the podium to thank the assembly for contributing to another successful “Evening at the Gardner”; then grandly introduced Farrell. Maria and I refrained from joining in the resounding applause.

Farrell thanked a long list of alumni who had made “considerable contributions” to the school; he also thanked the Alumni Association for the “Man of the Year” award recently bestowed upon him.

“I am indeed humbled by the award,” Farrell said. “As many of you know, I’ve spent a great portion of my life at Classical: as a student, as a teacher and finally as its headmaster. My work is a privilege. Indeed, to serve the children of our great city has always been my one and only goal, and the best way to serve them is to maintain Classical as America’s best public school.”

There was thunderous applause with a scattering of alumni standing up and cheering.

He proceeded to recognize the donations from Classical chapters around the country. This year the West Coast’s chapter surpassed the New England chapter by contributing $400,000. His announcement drew more applause. One bald-headed man stood up and yelled, “Go West, young men!” A pretty blonde shouted back “And women!” to the delight of the audience.

“As for the Foundation’s gift of my portrait to the school, again I’m humbled. I had no intention to pose for a portrait. But we value tradition at Classical, and ever since its founding, headmasters have succumbed to a portrait. The artist was very kind, making me look handsome, but who knows, perhaps I’ll grow into the portrait.”


“Like Dorian Gray,” Maria whispered.

“Now down to business. Mr. Richard Murphy of the class of ’46 has promised a million dollars to Classical.” Mr. Murphy, seated on the dais, stood and bowed to a standing ovation.

“His bequest will be used to jump-start the Pilot School,” Farrell continued, “that James Slater and I have worked on for the last two years. As you may know, the only obstacle to our program has been the city’s powerful teachers’ union. I hope now to lure them to our side with stipends, smaller classes, and reduced programs. They still have, however, the final say in this matter. I hope all here will help us launch this program. Boston’s schoolchildren are our top priority, and we must never fail them. Our innovative, cutting-edge program guarantees success at Classical. Every student entering Classical will leave with a Classical diploma, a ticket to a better life.”


Farrell introduced Slater — who could just about reach the microphone. In a thin, timid voice, Slater explained what the Nexus Program entailed.

“We call our Pilot School ‘Nexus,’ which as you graduates know, is the Latin word for link. Our program is unique, providing students with the many and varied links connecting the subjects they study. Teaching subjects separately has been a major weakness of our educational system. We want our students to experience a holistic approach to learning; our goal is a thematic integration of knowledge exposing them to the cultural treasures of our city, places like this museum. Imagine what it must be like for an inner-city kid to come here for a learning experience!

“We will, of course, retrain our teachers to inspire and motivate their students. New student-centered teaching methods must be taught to our teachers. All children are success-oriented, and if they fail, it’s because teachers have failed to make education attractive and fun for them.”


Walking back to our cars, Ed said, “I overheard a lot of praise. No doubt about it, Farrell has the alumni eating out of his hand… it’s ironic that the program is called ‘Nexus’ since the students in the program won’t be studying Latin.”

“It’s the beginning of the end of the Classical language department,” Maria said. “Farrell loathes Latin, which he repeatedly failed as a student. He considers it a waste of time for modern students. What’s infuriating is that many of the changes they propose are already done in school. Most teachers link their subject to other subjects when they teach. I refer to Latin, English, and history when I teach languages — as well as geography and current events. You have to when you teach. It’s nothing new. We also take our students on field trips when they’re relevant to the subject being taught. The idea that we teach in a vacuum is absurd.”

“How long did Farrell teach?” Ed asked.

“Five years,” Maria said. “And he hated it, constantly whining about being cooped up in a classroom, resenting the mundane aspects of teaching like lesson planning, testing, and correcting papers.”

“And Slater?” Ed asked.

“Started out as a teacher,” she said, “but couldn’t control the kids. He connived to become an administrator, but it never panned out.”

“Will he teach in the program?” Ed asked.

“Ed, don’t be naive,” Maria said, gently poking him in the arm. “Slater will be the headmaster of grades seven and eight. Yes, this time they might get their way with the irresistible bait of smaller classes and reduced programs.”

“On its face,” Ed said, “their ideas sound pretty good.”

“But based on watered-down standards,” Maria said. “Everyone passes, and there’ll be no study of Latin? Absurd.”

“What are Nexus’ chances?” Ed asked.

“Farrell can’t do anything this year,” I said.

“Tonight’s the beginning of his campaign, Maria said. “As you’ve said many times, John, teachers will sell their souls for a free period, and if he dangles that carrot as well as smaller classes before them, they might bite.”

“Did you say Farrell receives a doctorate out of this?” Ed asked.

“That’s what I hear,” Maria said beginning to giggle. “We’ll have to call him Dr. Farrell.”

“And Dr. Slater,” I said.

Maria and I couldn’t stop laughing. As we approached our cars, Ed came to a complete stop, “I’ve got it!”

“What?” Maria asked.

“I’ve figured it out!” Ed said.

I looked at Maria, she at me, and we looked at Ed.

“What?” I asked.

“Why Farrell is so popular with people outside the school.”

Farrell’s secret, Ed explained, was that his persona was a mirror: to win people over to his way of thinking, he mirrored back their success, self-satisfaction, and importance.

Maria musingly said, “I think you’re on to something.”

“It’s simpler than that,” I said. “Farrell appears to be the innocent flower, but he is the snake beneath it.”

“An open and shut case of hypocrisy?” Ed said.

“Yes,” I said, “and treachery.”

“Then we must be his opposite,” Ed said, “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”

“And what will that get us?” I said.

“It’s not a question of getting but of giving.”

I again felt chastened — as if Ed was wiser and more mature than me. Maria must have read my thoughts because she threw me a look as if to say, “He’s still young and can afford to be idealistic.”

Was it that simple?


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”