The School on the Fens (19)

By: Robert Waldron
June 15, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the nineteenth 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 next day the headmaster summoned me to his office. To my surprise, Mary greeted me with a smile and ushered me right in. Farrell was tired or hungover or both. He was his usual bureaucratic self, impeccably turned out in a double-breasted tan suit and maroon silk tie, but his mousy hair looked greasy, and I wondered if he had skipped a morning shower.

“Good to see you last night but wish more teachers had attended,” he said from behind his desk while motioning me to take a seat.

“It’s difficult to party during the week,” I said, “when you have to teach a full program the next day.”

“Didn’t stop you, did it?”

“No, but I had an ulterior motive.”

“Ulterior motive?”

“I’d heard your Pilot School was being raised from the dead… and I needed verification.”

Farrell laughed. “But it was never dead, only in a coma. You’re still opposed to it?’


“Will anything change your mind?”

“Don’t think so.”

Mary carried in a tray of coffee and croissants. As she poured coffee for the two of us, she glanced over at me, her eyes two blue stones in nests of wrinkles. To my surprise, she again smiled. Seems my stock had gone up. When she left, Farrell resumed, “I need your help, John. Murphy’s million dollars is contingent upon implementing the Nexus Program. If it doesn’t fly, we lose the money. You’ve a lot of influence with the faculty.”

“It’s not good for the school, especially if Latin is removed from the curriculum.”

“Students will take Latin when they enter the ninth grade.”

“Bad idea. Seventh and eighth graders should study Latin. Why do you think our SAT scores haven’t plummeted like the rest of the country?”

“Our kids are bright, it’s why they score high. Latin’s got nothing to do with it.”

“You’re gambling with our students’ future.”

He pinched a croissant with his thumb and index finger, dipped it into his coffee and took a bite.

“Think of it, one million dollars,” he said. “We can do a lot with that money.”

Yes, I thought, like reward your sycophants with smaller classes and our students will be treated to more field trips, fun and more fun. The parents will be happy, and you will be hailed as an educational leader, and your reward a phony doctorate.

“Let me make this easy for you,” I said. “If I convince the faculty to accept Nexus, I’ve got the chairmanship. Right?”

“In a nutshell.”

He gulped coffee, looked at me and smiled a knowing smile as if he was certain I’d take the bait.

“I have to refuse,” I said. “Classical is too important to sacrifice its standards for educational fluff.”

“Are you refusing a substantial pay hike and a preferential school program?”

“With two kids still in college, I could use the money, but I have to decline your offer.”

He paused to sip coffee.

“What if we keep Latin in the lower grades?”

“Better. But everyone passes, right?”

“You object?”

“Students shouldn’t pass just for coming to school. They should learn to face the consequences of their actions, and if they fail to do their work, they shouldn’t be rewarded with passing grades.”

“We need this program to lower the attrition rate among minorities.”

Ah, so that was his rationale.

“There are better strategies.”

“Minority parents are angry that their kids are flunking out.”

“The minority attrition rate has actually decreased.”

“Not enough. We’ve got to do more.”

Had I misjudged him? Was his purpose altruistic?

“I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue,” he continued. “Minorities just can’t do the work. Christ, look at the Asians; they’ve only been in this country a few years, and they’re at the top of their classes.” He paused. “To appease the minority community we need Nexus.”

No, I hadn’t misjudged him; he was still a bigot.

“Do you intend to campaign against the plan?”

“Besides educational issues, there are union issues at stake.”

“What would it cost to keep your mouth shut,” he asked, his left eyebrow twitching.

I stood up. “I’ll speak against the program to all union members.”

The bell rang for the next period. Farrell abruptly stood, tipping over his coffee.

“You’d be happier at another school.”

“Another school?”

“Yes, you’re behind the times.”

“I’m not leaving Classical. In fact, it may be you who’ll be leaving… I know all about you and Tim O’Donnell.”

For once in his life Farrell was speechless.

“I haven’t decided what to do with this information,” I continued, “but I won’t be transferring anywhere.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t remember Thompson’s walking in on you and Tim?”

“Get the hell out of here!”

On my way back to my room, I felt a surge of confidence. For once in my career, I actually had the upper hand. Of course, I was totally ignorant about how to use it.

A few days later, Jocelyn Yates stopped by my homeroom after school. Jocelyn had the distinction of being Classical’s first African-American teacher, a gifted woman with high academic standards. “No fads for me,” she once said. “The kids, me, and the book — it’s all I need.” When I said I couldn’t agree more, we bonded as allies in the English department.

She looked troubled as she slid into one of the portable desks. She had recently been called to the headmaster’s office. Like all of us when summoned, she thought that she had either missed a school chore or that a tragedy had occurred at home. She was astonished to hear Farrell’s offering her the department chairmanship.

“John, I don’t want the position. I’ve got two children at home. When I recommended you for the job, he said I shouldn’t discuss it with you.”

“I appreciate your vote of confidence. On what day did he offer you the job?”

It was two days before he had offered it to me. So he’d had no intention of appointing me. He was just trying to use me to launch his Pilot School.

“How did you leave it with him?” I said.

“I said I’d think about it.”

“Jocelyn, I think you’d make a great head of department.”

“You’re the senior member of the department, and by right it should go to you.”

“It won’t happen, not as long as Farrell’s headmaster.”

“I wish he’d get a promotion and drive the people downtown crazy.”

We laughed.

“Why would Farrell say not to discuss it with you?”

“He offered the job to me too. He said if I went along with his Pilot School, I can have it.”

“Bribery and lies?”

I nodded.

“He’s a piece of work.” She stood and left shaking her head.

It would be sweet revenge for Farrell if I had helped convince the faculty to accept Nexus only to watch him hand over the chairmanship not to me but to Jocelyn. It would serve as his exemplum: “See, Duncan, this is the way the real world works.”


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”