The School on the Fens (22)

By: Robert Waldron
July 6, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the twenty-second 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.



It was time for my second observation of Ed’s class. I quietly slipped into a desk while he was taking attendance. His room was neat, the floor free of the usual debris of discarded papers, gum, and candy wrappers. Posters of Impressionist paintings decorated his homeroom walls. Aabove his desk was a huge, colorful print of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Ed’s students were seated, well behaved and quietly talking.

Wearing a blue cardigan over a white shirt and dark slacks, he looked clean-cut as he stood utterly still, patiently waiting for his students’ attention. I had noticed Ed’s stillness before and sometimes felt that he was part and yet not part of this world. His calm presence gradually quieted the classroom, and then he began his lesson with questions about the prior night’s reading of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Initial identification and plot questions graduated to more difficult ones about theme and characterization. He asked for volunteers to answer, but when no hands rose, he used call cards. Each student received his undivided attention and was treated with utmost respect. I was pleased that he used students’ first names, disregarding the school’s long tradition of calling them by their surnames — a practice I’d always found impersonal, if not downright rude.

When he asked what the dominant theme of the play was, Tim O’Donnell volunteered, “Martyrdom.”

“Good! Now let’s define martyr.”

He printed in bold letters on the blackboard MARTYR. A few kids slouched in their chairs, a girl played with her make-up, one fingered her long hair, and another gazed out the window. A few boys had difficulty keeping their eyes open, their heads jerking up before sleep won them.

Tim’s attention was fixed on Ed.

“A martyr is a dead person,” said a pretty Hispanic girl in the front row.

“Juanita, is there something exceptional about a martyr’s death?” Ed asked, his eyes scanning the room for other potential participants.

“He dies for a cause,” Juanita said.

“Excellent. Now, class, give me some examples of martyrs.”

Names were tossed into the air,

“Malcolm X.”

“Martin Luther King.”

“Robert Kennedy.”


“Jim Morrison,” said Tony Bonnatto, a longhaired boy dressed in jeans and a white tee shirt, near sleep a few seconds ago. A member of my class last year, he was a good, intelligent student but embarrassed about being smart, he chose to play the class clown.

“Tony, how did Jim Morrison die?” Ed prompted, ignoring the class’ snickering.

“In Paris he fell asleep and drowned in a bathtub,” he said, pleased by Ed’s interest.

“That’s what the public was told,” Juanita said, “but he really died of a drug overdose.”

“Okay,” Ed said to the whole class, “is Morrison a martyr?”

“Doesn’t a martyr have to die for something,” said a black student sitting in front of me, “like for God or country?”

Ed nodded, “Perhaps Morrison was a martyr. Perhaps he took drugs because he rejected the lifestyle he saw around him.” Ed paused to let this idea sink in. Then he said, “Perhaps people like Morrison help us to take stock of our own lives.”

“If he didn’t like the way things were,” said Tara, a red-haired student in front of me, “he should’ve tried to change them, make them better for everyone.”

“Easy to say, Tara,” Ed said, “but some people aren’t strong or brave enough to fight for change. In this very room aren’t there some brave people and some who perhaps aren’t?” Ed’s question silenced them. “Now,” Ed resumed, “should we dismiss Morrison and say he’s just a coward because he took drugs as a way of escape and inadvertently killed himself?”

The class remained silent. Teachers will often answer their own questions rather than endure the dreaded pregnant pause, but Ed wasn’t frightened by long silences, which, I felt, was somehow related to his own personal stillness.

Tim finally raised his hand, “We shouldn’t condemn him. He wasn’t hurting, robbing, beating, or killing anyone. He harmed only himself.”

“If we’re not condemning him, how should we react?”

“We can feel sorry for him?” Tim said.

Most of the class had turned toward Tim; their attention showed that they both liked him and respected his opinions.

“What is feeling sorry for someone called?”

“Compassion,” Tim said.

“Good, we can feel compassion for him. Does anyone feel compassion for Thomas à Becket?” Ed asked, leading the class back to the day’s lesson.

“I do because he died for a higher cause,” said a young woman who had previously been filing her nails, “for something he believed in.”

“So there are higher and lower causes? Can you give us an example of both?”

“Let me think,” she said, rubbing her chin. “I’d give up my life for my mother and my father, maybe even my brother, but I sure ain’t dying for Barbara Streisand — I can’t stand that woman!” Ed and the class burst into laughter, and there ensued a wild chorus of opinions about Streisand, the pros and cons, and Ed wisely allowed the brief intermission before gently directing the class back to the play.

Near the end of the period, Ed asked for a volunteer to read Becket’s Christmas homily. The kids were suddenly shy. Tim looked around the class, and when he saw that no one wanted to read, he raised his hand. He read it so well that a hush descended upon the room. When he came to the part when Becket says, “A Christian martyrdom is no accident,” I happened to look up to see Farrell outside the classroom door, observing Tim read. His gaze then slowly shifted back and forth between Ed and Tim. I cannot say I detected hatred in his eyes. No, what surprised me was that he appeared to be interested. Catching me watching him, he quickly departed.

Later I met Maria and Fred Wright in the teachers’ lounge for coffee. Fred was a brilliant classicist who had often sparred with Farrell on the Faculty Senate about teachers’ union rights, which he constantly violated. Rell lacked the intelligence to debate Fred and would usually end up screaming at him, but Fred would calmly stare him down, and Rell, although he disliked Fred, respected his intelligence and integrity — both of which he lacked — and would calm down so we could finish our meetings.

Fred said, “I overheard a guidance counselor describe himself as Rell’s classmate and friend.”

“Who?” Maria asked, surprised.

“Ted Brown.”

“Ted, a Classical graduate!” she said, incredulously. “And Rell’s friend? Wonders never cease.”

“And, I gather, Rell’s only friend,” Fred said. “Rell was a loner. No clubs, no sports, in fact, very little school involvement. But Ted related an incident that may throw some light on our headmaster. Seems Farrell was a poor student when it came to Latin and needed a trot to pass.

“Their Latin teacher was Old Man Bickford, a mean bastard and an expert in smelling out inter-linears… he caught Rell using one during a test. He had him stand up in class to confess to cheating and wrote a huge zero on his test, which he had him take home for his father to sign. To further humiliate Rell, Bickford had him write on the test, “I, Henry Farrell, am a cheat.”

“That’s cruel,” Maria said.

“It gets worse. When Rell’s father saw it, he beat the hell out of him for getting caught!”

“I almost feel sorry for him,” Maria said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Fred said.

“For every teacher he abuses,” Maria said, “it’s revenge on Bickford and his father?”

Fred shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe.”

“Is his father still alive?” Maria asked.

Fred’s eyes widened, “Farrell still lives with him.”

We stared at him in disbelief.

Growing up, I had heard many stories about fathers disciplining their kids with their hands or belts, following the old saw about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. But their kids grew up to be fine human beings so I was not about to let Farrell off the hook because his father whipped him a few times. But I will confess to a twinge of pity for the guy.


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”