The School on the Fens (1)
February 9, 2013
HiLobrow is proud to present the first 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 was in the seventh grade, the day I decided to become a teacher. Because it was snowing outside, Sister Mary Margaret decided her class of urban kids should study Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In unison we read it aloud, surrendering ourselves to the poem’s lilting iambic rhythm, its rural imagery, its mystery.
A gifted teacher, Sister proceeded to make the poem come alive for us. As we discussed its secret meanings, I was pierced with the insight that this— the order, warmth and peace of the classroom; being among my classmates whom I had known since kindergarten; reading a beautiful poem about snow in the country; and at the head of it all, a teacher whom we all loved — was happiness.
Then and there, I dedicated myself not only to books and learning, but to the purpose of instilling in others a love and reverence for these things. By the time I became a teacher, however, times had changed. I would have to face such realities as assault, suicide, and murder — all under the roof of the school where I taught English literature.
Headmaster Henry Farrell was scheduled to address Class VI (seventh-grade) students during the fourth period, his yearly egomaniacal exercise in terrifying a new group of twelve-year-olds.
I led my “sixies” down the vaulted second-floor corridor toward the assembly hall. Morning sunlight filtered through the dirt-grimed windows, highlighting the dust motes hovering in the heat-oppressed air scented by sweat, wool and floor wax. Students gazed up at the wall with its faded sepia photographs of alumni. They giggled at the boys’ unsmiling poses and old-fashioned attire — prior to 1970 Classical High was all-male. I waved them forward into the assembly hall.
With its coffered ceiling and Palladian windows, the auditorium was the jewel of the school building, its second exceptional architectural feature being the neo-classical portico that faced Avenue Blaise Pascal.
Farrell stood in the middle of the main aisle, scowling at the arriving students. Six feet tall, he had dull brown hair above small, stony eyes, an angular face with a long, narrowly bridged nose and a smirking slash of a mouth. He wore an expensive pinstriped suit; his right hand rested on his hip while his left hand jangled a large ring of keys.
His meteoric rise from classroom teacher to headmaster had confounded us all. When he had first arrived at Classical, a lusterless, mediocre teacher, we’d ignored him. But after he received the title of headmaster, he metamorphosed into an outgoing, attractive, well-dressed man — simultaneously admired, envied, and feared. However, once he realized that his tenure as headmaster would last as long as he desired, he changed again. He became silent, dark, aloof. He no longer needed to cultivate anyone’s approval; he was surrounded by eager lackeys. His dream had been fulfilled.
I hustled my students into their rows, reminding them to remain standing. Farrell alone gave the command to be seated. They remained silent except for a chorus of sighs as they dropped their crammed book-bags to the floor. As to the purpose of the assembly, they were clueless. Farrell relished keeping students in the dark.
A rush of noise shattered the quiet when the new English teacher, Ed Horgan, entered the hall with his talkative class. Filling up the end rows, his boisterous students were testing the bounds of proper school behavior, treating the assembly as if it were recess, conduct not rare for students with a novice teacher. When they began to sit down, Farrell’s scowl intensified, causing the rest of the assembly to turn to observe the object of his pique. Ed’s class endured the stares until they finally realized their lapse, and one by one stood at silent attention.
I stood in the side aisle. Maria Felix of the foreign language department squeezed by me and whispered, “The poor lambs.” “Yes,” I said, “to the slaughter.”
The school’s stage managers, Tim O’Donnell and Todd Blake, stepped through the stage curtains, carrying a mahogany podium. Tim was the captain of the hockey team and Todd its co-captain. When my girls saw them, they elbowed each other, and Linda Fry simulated swooning. Tim had the face of an angel: a fine nose, pale skin, intense blue eyes, wavy ebony hair; he was dark Irish and graced with a physique more like that of a swimmer than a hockey player. A gifted athlete, he was also intelligent and charismatic.
Todd was equally handsome, with a freckled face, auburn hair, innocent hazel eyes, a nose slightly crooked from a game-related breakage; he was shorter than Tim and tended to put on weight. To lose it, he would starve himself during the hockey season in order to achieve speed within the rink. He ranked academically at the bottom of his class, and therein lay his dilemma: a solid, if not a gifted hockey player, he would likely have to settle for a second- or perhaps a third-tier college.
Tim jumped from the stage to hand Farrell a microphone while Todd shouldered the podium down the side stairs and positioned it at the front of the middle aisle; afterwards both leaped to the stage to disappear behind the crimson curtain.
Hundreds of electric ceiling lights suddenly flashed on, including a huge brass chandelier, its cascading light enhancing the sheen of the mahogany wainscoting graced with brass wall sconces and memorial plaques engraved with the names of Classical’s beneficiaries. Several teachers eyed me: Farrell was ready to deliver what the faculty had come to call the “grand dazzle,” a finely tuned showpiece whose purpose was not only to inspire new students to aim for academic excellence but also to put the fear of God into them. God being Headmaster Farrrell.
When the hall became as quiet as a chapel, Farrell turned toward the flag, offering the assembly a side view of his face. His profile was perfect enough to grace a coin. He placed his right hand over his heart and recited in a booming voice the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone joined in, and as the students’ voices increased in volume, his faded to a whisper. At the finish, he turned toward the audience and spoke angrily into the microphone, “I’m disgusted with the way you arrived here today! There is to be absolute silence when you enter this assembly hall, and you’re to remain standing until I signal you to sit!”
Students were unprepared for his angry outburst, staring incredulously at one another. Some shrugged their shoulders; others rolled their eyes. A grinning Asian boy faced a classmate and circled his finger at his temple. Farrell stalked down the aisle toward him.
“Young man, do you find this amusing?”
The boy blanched.
Farrell repeated the question.
“No,” the boy quavered.
He was confused until someone whispered “Sir.”
“Then you’d better adopt the Classical spirit.” Farrell jabbed the boy’s shoulder with his index finger, “I’ll be watching you.”
All the while students remained standing in shocked silence as Farrell returned to the front of the hall. Gazing down at his highly polished shoes, he beat a silent tune with his right hand against his thigh. His manicured fingernails glittered.
When the clock chimed ten o’clock, he looked up. “You may now be seated.”
In absolute silence, the students obeyed.
“I want everyone to look up,” Farrell said, pointing toward the ceiling. Hundreds of kids craned their necks to gaze at the frieze of Classical’s famous alumni, their names scrolled in huge black Gothic letters. They gasped. Though they may not have heard of Emerson, Santayana, and Bullfinch, they recognized Hancock, Franklin, Kennedy, and others.
Farrell had made his first point. Classical High produced first-rate movers and shakers: presidents, philosophers, cardinals, successful entrepreneurs. He then smiled his best fake smile, that of a kind if not paternal man.
“They’re graduates of Classical High,” Farrell crooned, basking in the attention of over four hundred sixies. “They’ve made outstanding contributions to our country. You’re their heirs — and if you work and obey our rules, perhaps your name may one day be added to that illustrious list. As you can see, there’s still space for more names.” He fell silent, and when satisfied he had every eye focused on him, he resumed: “But judging by your entry into this hall, I have my doubts about you. First impressions are important, and you haven’t in the least impressed me.”
“Be warned, I’ll not permit any of you to compromise the reputation of my, or rather, our school. No one here asked you to take the exam for admission. Having won a seat here, you must be the best student that you can be, and my job as Classical’s twenty-fifth headmaster is to protect its standards and its treasured traditions.”
He then droned on about Classical’s history: how Boston’s Puritans had established Classical in 1635, following the model of England’s famous prep schools. Though he spoke at length of its illustrious history, he failed to mention that Classical grads had also been responsible for hanging Quakers on the Boston Common in 1659, and for the 1697 Salem witch trials.
Later that year, I’d tell my seventh-graders that Classical High had been built on marshland once owned by a Classical grad hanged in 1797 for murder. New students didn’t believe that our school rests on pilings driven into the marsh, so I’d lead them down into the school’s sub-cellar where through an opening used to measure the water’s depth, they could spot the wooden posts. My attention stopped wandering as Farrell’s speech reached its climax.
“I now want you to look to your left and look to your right.”
There were giggles and quizzical looks, but the kids did as they were told.
“One of the people to your right or to your left will not graduate from Classical High School. But if you graduate, and I stress the ‘if’, you can write your own ticket. College reps from across the country will recruit you because you’re the crème de la crème of Boston, the Athens of America, the home of the first and best secondary school in our country. Understand?”
There was a chorus of applause. A ghost of a smile appeared on Farrell’s face.
I have always loathed his speech because it instilled an unhealthy elitism in our students, one that few were able to shake. Later, they would be subjected to Farrell’s Ivy League speech when he would grudgingly admit there were many other fine American colleges, but Classical students should aspire to attend Ivy League colleges. Many of our students and their families buy into his elitism, resulting in great pain to students and parents alike when their dreams of admission to Ivy League fail to come true and have to settle for an “inferior” college. To a Classical senior, colleges like Georgetown and Williams were not quite up to snuff, a notion of which I’ve often tried to disabuse them, not always successfully.
“Remember,” he continued, “Classical is the oldest school in America, second to none, including the exclusive and, I might add, expensive prep schools to our north.” He was referring to Phillips-Andover and Phillips-Exeter and to the fact that Classical High was a public school, thus free of tuition. “And we also predate Harvard College by almost two years.” At this comment, he received a thunderous round of applause.
The bell rang, signaling an end to the period. A student in Ed Horgan’s class noisily stood to gather books, diverting the assembly’s attention from Farrell.
“Who gave you permission to stand?” Farrell angrily asked a gentle-looking boy I first took to be a girl.
“No one, sir,” he replied.
Farrell slid his gaze toward Ed, “Mr. Horgan, escort him to my office and wait for me.”
With his arm around the boy’s shoulders, Ed escorted him out of the hall. When the door clicked shut behind them, the fifth period bell rang, and Farrell dismissed the assembly.
When I later met Ed in the corridor, he shook his head as if to say, “How can you allow Farrell to bully children?” There was a time when such accusatory looks made me feel guilty, but Farrell possessed absolute power in our small world and opposing him led nowhere except to his permanent hostility and certain persecution.
“Welcome to Classical,” I said sarcastically. Ed smirked. I felt I had somehow let him down, which bothered me because I liked and respected him, hoping that we’d become friends.
At the final bell, my senior homeroom emptied faster than a racetrack stall. Tim O’Donnell, however, remained behind.
“Tim, what can I do for you?”
“May I sit?” he asked. I pointed to the first seat in front of my desk, into which he slid, sitting ramrod straight.
“I need a college recommendation,” he said with a timidity I had never before detected in him. “Will you write it?”
College! How quickly the years had flown by. Tim had been in my English class when he was a twelve year old. A small, blue-eyed kid, he arrived to school everyday scrubbed clean and meticulously dressed, his pants and shirts ironed to perfection, evidence of a mother who cherished him.
To my questions in class, he would be the first to raise his hand, the kind of eager student every teacher dreams of. Diligent and determined to excel, he invariably made the honor roll list.
The year I had him was the first year I had asked my students to keep journals because I was interested in their reactions to the literature we were studying. “Don’t fake it,” I insisted, “if you don’t like something, tell me.” I enjoyed reading their candid commentaries, but as kids are wont to do, they would often veer off the subject and write about themselves and their families, something I warned them repeatedly not to do, and most obeyed.
Tim, however, wrote about how his drunken father yelled and threatened him and his mother. When he wrote about his Mom, his writing glowed in describing how hard she worked as a paraprofessional at a local school and on weekends as a Kelly Girl, cleaning people’s houses. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a Southie housing project infamous for poverty, drugs and gangs, the latter controlled by a mobster Whitey Bulger.
When Tim once arrived at school with a bruise on his cheek, I suspected abuse and questioned him about it, but he insisted that he received it during a hockey game. Playing hockey was the other topic Tim invariably squeezed into his journal; his passion for the game was not unusual for a boy growing up in Southie where hockey is akin to religion. And from what I could gather from remarks by a few coaches I knew, Tim was as gifted on the ice as he was in the classroom.
Scholar and athlete, Tim had a golden future ahead of him.
He was also friendly with a variety of kids. There was a quiet black kid in his class with whom no one bothered, but I often saw Tim joking with him. They became buddies and ate lunch together in the cafeteria. I smiled to myself because it shattered the stereotype that all Southie kids were racists, tossing stones at yellow school busses transferring black students from Roxbury to South Boston schools during the city’s court-ordered desegregation.
No doubt about it, Tim was a good kid. Once while carrying a pile of books into class, I missed my footing, scattering them everywhere. My students had a good laugh at my expense, but Tim rushed forward to help me pick them up — the only one.
On another occasion I had assigned my class to memorize in fifteen minutes Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After five minutes I noticed Tim opening his Latin book, and I questioned him why he was studying Latin in English class. He replied that he had already memorized the poem. When I asked him to recite it, he flawlessly declaimed it — to my and the class’s admiration.
When he was once struck down by the flu, I received a phone call from his mother requesting homework so Tim would not fall too far behind. I had just passed out new books, and volunteered to bring them to her.
The Old Colony Project was built shortly after World War II to accommodate young veterans and their families. Over the years with the exodus of families to the suburbs, the project had become seedy and crime ridden. I felt a bit uneasy walking through its labyrinth of dark tunnels looking for Tim’s apartment building. Groups of teenagers eyed me suspiciously. I fortunately met a kind woman who pointed me in the right direction; she also warned me, “Be careful, they don’t like strangers around here.”
Mrs. O’Donnell opened the door, inviting me into an apartment that I can only describe as Spartan but spotless: the floors were waxed, its few pieces of furniture highly polished, and draping the windows starched and ironed white curtains. Lying under a faded quilt on an ancient sofa, Tim watched a small black and white television. When he saw me, he sat up, his face turning crimson. He was embarrassed, and I wanted to leave quickly to relieve him of his discomfort, but his mother insisted that I stay for tea and scones that she had just taken out of the oven. On the kitchen table I placed his books and outlined on paper the work Tim needed to make up.
“Never has a teacher come here,” she said. “Our priests won’t come anymore. Can’t blame them, it’s dangerous. The project’s under Whitey Bulger’s control, and he’s one to steer clear of. My husband was beaten nearly to death for not paying back a loan, doubled of what he borrowed.”
In Boston everyone had heard of Bulger and his brother, the state’s most powerful politician. I had taught the latter’s son, a brilliant young man and a gentleman. No, I couldn’t say a word against Whitey’s brother, although some disliked him, especially Boston’s leading newspaper, but he was a brilliant man who had studied Latin and Greek at Boston College. He could easily have had a career in academia but decided on politics, following in the footsteps of his hero, the legendary Irish Mayor John Curley who stole Boston’s rule from the long entrenched Yankees.
She sipped her tea and talked about the “old” country in a brogue you could cut with a knife. Born in Galway City, she had left Ireland to avoid becoming a nun, her parents’ plan for her. She had met her husband while working as a waitress at a Boston restaurant. “He wasn’t there to eat,” she said, rolling her eyes, “and that should’ve warned me, but even in the drink he was a charmer.” When she spoke about Tim, her eyes turned luminous, and when I departed, I knew I had met a devoted mother who unconditionally loved her son, and I understood the reason why Tim had turned out to be the fine boy he was.
“I’d be honored to write you a recommendation, Tim,” I said. “Which college?”
“Only Ivy League. Harvard is my first choice, and I’m going for early decision.”
“So you’re about to achieve your dream.”
I remembered his seventh grade essay about his goal to attend an Ivy, and only an Ivy.
“At Harvard, I’ll be close by for my mother.”
“Good idea but Tim, there are colleges as fine as any Ivy. Don’t box yourself in and —”
“Mr. Duncan, I rank at the top of the class and I have a combined SAT score of 1580, twenty points short of a perfect score. And I’m captain of the hockey team and I also —”
“Take it easy, Tim, I know you’re worthy of Ivy.”
He smiled. “So you’ll write it?”
“Thanks, Mr. Duncan. But —”
He hesitated, looking down at the floor. “You know there’s stuff about me that would surprise you.”
Tim’s eyes lifted and connected with mine. I waited, expecting an explanation for his astonishing remark.
“What is it, Tim?”
“I’m not who you think I am,” he said, returning his gaze to the floor.
“You’re a fine young man.”
He looked up and smiled, “Thanks. . . but like I said, I’m no saint.”
To diffuse an awkward exchange, I said, “Don’t much like saints, too perfect for me.”
He stood up and put out his hand for me to shake.
“Thanks, Mr. Duncan,” he said, pumping my hand vigorously. “You’ve always been great to me, and I won’t forget it.”
I wondered what he wanted to tell me. I had seen him drunk at the junior prom last year, not a pretty sight. Had he like his father developed a drinking problem or fallen into drug use, not uncommon for kids in South Boston where Whitey Bulger possessed no compunction about selling drugs to teenagers? My better sense, however, ruled it out: Tim could never have maintained his honor roll grades or superb athleticism had he been on booze or drugs. No, it had to be something else.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks in 2011; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, published in limited-edition paperback in 2011; 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 appeared in the 2012 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” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | 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”