HiLobrow is proud to present the fourth 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 awakened to find Iris slipping into her jogging clothes. As I went to fat, Iris became more svelte and healthy thanks to jogging, yoga and healthy dieting.
“Honey, I made coffee and put out your pills.” She was referring to my meds for high blood pressure, gout and anxiety. “Don’t forget to take them,” she said, leaning over the bed to peck me on the cheek. “And don’t let that place get to you today.”
When she left, I got out of bed. Draped in a blanket, I shuffled to the window to find a plum-hued morning sky, and watched Iris running in a measured gait down the street to meet her running group. Wherever we went, people stared at her. She was agelessly beautiful, and I knew how lucky I was to be her husband.
Tired from a sleepless night, I was tempted to call in sick but headed toward the bathroom to shower.
For most of my teaching career I’ve suffered from insomnia, but when Farrell became headmaster, I graduated to night sweats and a heart pounding so fast, I nightly feared a heart attack. Iris complained that I allowed Rell to exert too much power over me, and as usual she was right.
As a union representative, I had to oppose him on most school issues; he had a penchant for violating our union contract. His most overt violation was unilaterally extending our school day. We immediately filed a grievance, but it required an academic year to resolve his violation, and in the meantime the extra minutes kept piling up. The union finally won, with the city coughing up a compensation of over $80,000. Rather than being chastised for costing the city so much money, the local newspapers praised him for taking on the “powerful” union. If we really had power, our classes would not be overcrowded, we’d have new and up to date textbooks and we teachers would be making more money. The myth of unions power still persists in our city.
We knew that for his loss he would someday seek revenge. We had heard his motto often enough, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”
Iris had often suggested that I transfer to another school, but I enjoyed teaching gifted students too much to switch to a city school where I would end up disciplining students more than teaching them. Besides, teaching at Classical had become my life, an irony considering that as a kid I had refused to attend it.
Classical High School had always been known as Boston’s best secondary school, its only competition the Jesuits’ Boston College High School. As a youngster I had attended a small Catholic grammar school in Boston’s South End, a neighborhood with London-like squares and cul-de-sacs; the Yankees had quickly abandoned their brick town houses when hordes of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants flooded into the port of Boston, by returning to their ancestral Beacon Hill and the more chic Back Bay neighborhood, close to the Charles River.
I grew up in a townhouse designed by Edwin Marsh, the architect who designed the now designated historic homes in Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Run down from years of neglect, the house still possessed remnants of its former glory, especially the beautiful spiral mahogany banister I would slide down as a boy.
I remember the day Sister Mary Margaret asked Alan Abbad and me to remain after school. Fearing that we were in trouble, we learned to our relief that Sister had chosen us to attend Classical High. Even though it was not a Catholic school, she explained, it was an excellent one and would open doors for us in life that a Catholic school could not. Admission hinged on three criteria: A student had to be on the honor roll, recommended by the school’s principal and male: briefly, a model boy student.
Although Alan had eagerly looked forward to attending Classical, I dreaded it, having heard many stories about it being a cruel school. I begged my parents to send me to St. Benedict’s, our local Catholic high school. On a Friday night at the kitchen table, Dad said, “It’s time to enter the real world… you’re going to Classical.”
“But, Dad, it’s a Protestant school,” I said, slipping a side-glance to mother for support.
“John has a point, dear,” she said, her blue eyes anxiously darting between me and Dad, who’d lay down his life for her if needed. Mother was beautiful, clever and ambitious for me. “Most of the teachers are Yankees,” she said, “and they’ve nothing but disdain for Irish Catholics. When I think how they treated my mother.”
My grandmother had worked as a maid for a Brahmin family on Beacon Hill, a hard-to-get job for an Irish girl. The Yankee ads appearing in the Boston Globe often read: NINA: “No Irish Need Apply.” Bigoted warnings had commonly appeared on cards displayed in Beacon Hill windows.
Father smiled, “So you’re both against me!”
“Please, Dad, I’m scared of that place,” I said.
My sister Helen looked on in bored amusement. Already a student at the female equivalent of Classical High, Girls’ Academy, she was an honor student recently accepted by Regis College, a prestigious Catholic college for women located in a wealthy Boston suburb. A red-haired, blue-eyed replica of my mother, she was also father’s darling, and she always took his side.
“Dad’s right,” she said. “It’s time you grew up and stopped being afraid of everything.” With her pinkie arched in mid-air, she then delicately forked haddock into her mouth.
I glared at her; she glared back.
“I’m not afraid of everything,” I said, slamming my fork down so hard the milk pitcher shook.
“Then why do you sleep with a light on?” she said, smirking.
I had no rebuttal.
“Hmm, just like I said,” she remarked, serenely sipping her milk.
Mother rose to my defense, saying it was my room, and if I wanted a light on, it was my business and nobody else’s. But I never forgot father’s perplexed eyes, as if wondering why nothing cowed his daughter but seemingly everything his son.
“Classical High is the best school in the city,” Dad continued. “Another Catholic school’s too safe… you should learn to get along with all sorts of people, not only Catholics.” Mother looked at me, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “I tried.”
“But my faith,” I stuttered.
“Grounded in eight years of Catholic school,” Dad said. “Say your prayers and you’ll do fine.”
Yet I knew from my parents’ surreptitious glances that they were worried about how an all-male school would treat a frail, timid boy.
Alan and I had walked from the South End to Boylston Street to board a trolley. It was our first long trip out of our neighborhood. The trolley swept by the Opera house and the Museum of Fine Arts after which we disembarked at Avenue Blaise Pascal. Classical was the biggest school I had ever seen: a red brick building with a wide granite stairway gracefully rising to an entrance flanked by eight stone columns.
We submitted our report cards to the office secretary, who brusquely directed us to a second floor classroom. The barrel-like corridors seemed to go on forever, and after much searching, we finally found our room. As we entered, a bearded teacher bellowed, “You’re late!” and pointed us to wooden desks, the type screwed to the floor. About twenty other boys sat ramrod straight in the silent-as-a-tomb room. Reading from a roster, the teacher barked out our surnames. I broke into a sweat, and my heart raced. Too terrified to move, the other boys were as still as statues.
I knew that I could never survive in such a school.
On our way home Alan said, “That place is weird.” I vigorously nodded, and we then both burst into hysterical laughter.
I later begged mother to convince father to let me attend St. Benedict’s. How she convinced him I don’t know to this day. Alan didn’t luck out, enduring Classical for only two years before he transferred to Abraham Lincoln High across the street from Classical. We’d lost touch for many years, but at a recent parish reunion I ran into him. He roared with laughter when I informed him I was teaching at Classical.
“You didn’t last long there, if I remember,” I chided.
“I hated Classical and deliberately flunked out so I could attend Lincoln High.”
His admission put to rest my long-held puzzlement: He was far brighter than I, and if anyone could do well at Classical, it was Alan. He described Classical as a school dominated by a Darwinian survival of the fittest regimen. “It was an academic boot camp. A lot of students, some of them really tough guys, just couldn’t take it and did what I did, deliberately failing. But for those who stayed, well, let me put it this way, there are plenty of wounded Classical grads out there.”
One of them was my boss.
I arrived early to school to move furniture, stacked against the corridor wall, into the teachers’ lounge. Donated by an alumnus, the tables and chairs were gaudy “modern” pieces, but at least they were clean and intact, not like the ancient junk we had discarded.
I pushed the huge round glass table into the middle of the room and neatly arranged six bright blue chairs around it and then dragged two leather club chairs into an alcove near the window. I cleaned our “new” fridge with a soapy sponge. Heart racing, sweating and out of breath, I slumped into a chair to rest, only to be startled by my reflection in a mirror embedded into a side of a club chair; paunchy, moon-faced, silver haired, I looked all my forty-eight years, and to judge by my pounding heart, I was badly out of shape.
After a brief rest, I switched on the Mr. Coffee just when the PA system came on, summoning me to the headmaster’s office. My heart resumed racing.
Hastening down the eerily empty corridors, I feared Iris had been in a car accident.
It had been a foggy, rainy autumn with many car accidents along Boston’s narrow, treacherous streets. Storrow Drive flooded almost every day, and the water of the Jamaica Pond overflowed its paved perimeter. The nearby Muddy River had swelled, its putrid odors wafting into the school building. Strong winds had also stripped the trees naked, strewing the streets with leaves, so slippery they could spin a car like a top.
Department chairman Bill Thompson had recently crashed his car into a utility pole. When I inspected the site, the tire marks showed that his car had first passed by the pole, but in a turn-around skid, it smashed into it at full speed. The jaws-of-life extricated his mangled body from the wrecked car. Shards of ruby glass glittered amidst a pile of fallen leaves in a nearby gutter, the only remnants of the accident.
Farrell stood behind his desk. We greeted each other civilly.
“Anything important?” I asked, out of breath.
“I’ve three important positions to fill, including a replacement for Bill Thompson.” He stared at his thick hands lying on the green blotter. “I’m considering you to chair the English department.”
Relieved it was not about Iris, I let out a deep breath. Farrell looked curiously at me. It then hit me: He offered me a promotion. I was incredulous.
He continued, “With your Ph.D. in English you have the credentials to be our next department head.”
As the Chairman of the English Department, he explained, I would be responsible for updating our English curriculum, evaluating my fellow colleagues and ordering books. The pay increase was substantial, and my teaching program would be reduced from five classes to one or two a day. He also hinted at some major changes for the school “down the road.”
I said I would like to think about it. Thanking him for his vote of confidence, I stood to leave.
I was at the door when he said, “Teachers like the new furniture?”
“Anything’s better than what we had,” I said, trying to sound appreciative.
“Your lounge is the first, the others will be furnished later. Our dedicated faculty deserves a pleasant place to relax.”
I searched his face for signs of mockery but found an inscrutable mask. “Our”—Was it the royal plural or a ruse to entice me into his web, to finish me off for not supporting him in the past or for too vehemently fighting against him for union rights?
“Yes,” I agreed, “our teachers are dedicated.”
I should have said: “You’re a goddamn liar, don’t give a fuck about teachers and if I had my way, you’d have been sent packing years ago.” But I lacked the courage to speak the truth. Furthermore, what good would it do?
I still believed, however, that people, if they wanted to, could change. Knowing he had won on almost every political and educational issue for a decade, maybe he could allow himself to be a kinder headmaster, tossing us a few crumbs (such as furniture) as a token of a newfound appreciation for his staff, but on second thought I dismissed the idea: Farrell’s character was forever etched in stone, with only one needed adjective: cruel.
Before lights out that night, I informed Iris about his offer. Out of the shower, glitteringly naked, her wet auburn hair combed back to reveal her lovely, delicately chiseled face, she radiated vitality. I remained amazed that as the mother of our three children, two in college and another in his mid-twenties, she still exuded sexual energy, never tiring of lovemaking.
Her green eyes probed mine, “You’ll take the job, won’t you?”
“Honey, we could use the money. How much?”
“Great! We’re being bled by tuition.” Iris was a real estate agent but had not sold anything since a small bungalow in Hyde Park last August. Our daughter Meredith was in her second year at Rice and our second son Jason in his first year at Reed. Neither was on scholarship, and we were considering a second mortgage on our home.
“As a teacher I have little interaction with Farrell, but as an administrator I’d be in daily contact with him and his staff. Those goddamn cabinet meetings every week — and my friends would think I’d sold out.”
“Think of you for once,” she said, sitting on my lap. “And me and the kids.” After a long, probing kiss, I said, “You want me to sell my soul for a lousy five thousand bucks?”
Messing my hair, she said, “Believing in the soul again?”
“Perhaps, but it doesn’t mean I’d sell it for a job. Look what he did to Bill Thompson.”
“Bill was afraid of his own shadow.”
“But he stood up to Farrell who deliberately terrified him into a heart attack. No blood on his hands, but Rell’s undoubtedly responsible for Bill’s death.”
Bill Thompson had doomed himself the first week of school in September. At a general assembly he dared to publicly question the headmaster’s expenditure of an alumnus’ bequest to Classical. Farrell announced that he’d be turning over the eminent heart surgeon Dr. Siegel’s gift of $500,000 to Coach Kerrigan and his Phys. Ed. department. The obese Kerrigan, universally known as the Pillsbury Dough Boy, had the school’s biggest budget, and whenever there was any extra money, he invariably managed to siphon it into his department.
“Dr. Siegel donated that money to refurbish our library,” Bill said, standing up so everyone could hear him.
Several teachers gasped at his boldness while the rest of us held our breath.
“As your headmaster, I know how better to utilize the donation,” Farrell said, barely veiling his rage at being publicly questioned. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”
“Our library is in dire need of books,” Bill continued, “and books, not sports, should be our top priority.”
“You may sit down Mr. Thompson, and leave such matters to the school’s administration.”
Bill’s face had turned crimson. I looked over at our librarian Miss Walker whose thin, freckled face remained impassive. Later, when I asked her why she failed to support Bill, she began to tremble, whining about not wanting “any trouble,” she who moaned most about the library’s lack of books. So her library shelves remained as empty as the dead linden trees outside its windows; and because students do not bother using the library, it remains as peaceful as Shangri-la, a hideaway where students can quietly work on their homework, but as for research, our library was useless without new, up-to-date books.
But Bill refused to give up, informing Dr. Siegel about Farrell’s intentions, and the doctor later withdrew his donation.
From then on Bill was deluged with “Kindly Notes” from Farrell, reprimands beginning with “Kindly desist from…”— accusing him of a number of violations: Arriving late to classes, leaving school too early, keeping inaccurate classroom attendance, testing too little, testing too much, grading too hard or too easily. Trumped up charges.
Bill was only two years away from retirement when Farrell started to daily visit his classes. Bill would look up to take attendance only to find Farrell glaring at him from the back of the room where he would stand for the whole period and then abruptly depart without a word.
Farrell’s silent treatment grew more and more stressful for Bill who had already suffered two heart attacks of which Farrell was fully aware.
Such behavior was typical of Farrell: no direct confrontation, only a slow, water-like torture of wearing away a teacher’s nerves until the teacher cried “Enough!” and admitted to whatever charge Farrell concocted and then transferred to another school, or, if old enough, retired. Bill, however, stubbornly held on, insisting that he had worked too hard and for too long not to receive his full pension, adding that he would never leave Classical for another high school.
The faculty noticed, however, his heavy step, his drooping shoulders, and then his shaking hands. One morning Bill woke up with Bell’s Palsy, twisting his mouth into a clown’s smile. Shortly afterwards, while driving to school, he suffered a massive heart attack on the slippery, leaf-strewn curves of the Jamaica Way.
I looked at Iris, “Farrell killed Bill.”
“Let’s not argue. It’s up to you, yet we could use the money, but I won’t ask you to do something you don’t want to do, but honey, one thing I’ve learned in the business world is that when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
“I’m not in the business world. That’s what’s wrong with American schools; they’ve adopted Harvard Business School’s lousy ethics, but you can’t run a school that way. We’re supposed to instill genuine values in young people not a Darwinian dog-eat-dog —”
“Honey, I’ve heard this speech before.”
“Well, Farrell sucks! Have you heard that before?”
“You can’t change him,” Iris said, stroking my arm, “and Classical is a tiny pond, unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
“Iris, if I believed that, I’d blow my brains out.”
Iris climbed into bed, slid under the covers and patted the mattress for me to join her. I lay beside her as she nibbled my ear.
“I won’t say I’ll refuse Farrell’s offer,” I said, relenting. “But in my bones I know the bastard wants something from me.”
“Maybe he wants you to support his Pilot School idea.”
“The Pilot School… I’d forgotten —”
She placed her hand over my mouth and rolled onto to me. We made love swiftly and furiously — over too soon — but Iris was more than satisfied and turned on her side, and quickly fell asleep.
She had always been an easy sleeper, even when I first met her in California.
I had loved Robinson Jeffers’ poetry from the moment I read him in high school. On learning that his book Dear Judas had been banned in Boston, I quickly purchased a copy. At the time I was a pious young man, but he offered me a different slant on life. After several readings, I realized that Jeffers was actually a religious poet, albeit an unconventional one. I still read him when I need to be reminded of our insignificance in the scheme of things, a fact of life easily forgotten in the Byzantine world of Classical High where ego and hubris dominate.
Studying Jeffers, I learned to know him and his wife Una and their two sons, Garth and Donnan, as well as I knew my own family. My ideal was to emulate him: to build a home by the sea like the one he constructed with his bare hands in Carmel, California. That is if I could only find me a wife to believe in me the way Una believed in Jeffers, she who never once doubted his poetic gifts and urged him on to greatness.
As a graduate student at Berkeley, I decided to write my dissertation on Jeffers’ poetry, but Jeffers’ fame and influence had enormously declined, and I couldn’t find a dissertation advisor until one of my professors recommended Brother Antoninus, the well-known monk-poet. I went to his monastery and talked with him for an hour and managed to convince him to be my advisor. I was a lucky man, he said, because Jeffers had only one published disciple — him.
One summer day at while reading Jeffers’ verse in the college library, I decided on the spot to set off for Carmel to visit his home where his son still lived. It was a hasty departure because I knew that if I thought too much about it, I would never do it.
When I arrived in Carmel, I parked across from a diner and decided to fortify myself with lunch. I instantly noticed Iris sitting at the counter and quickly claimed the empty seat beside her. She was blond, green-eyed, and stunningly beautiful. She was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. The cover caught my eye: Selected Poems, Robinson Jeffers.
After finishing two coffees and a cheeseburger, I finally said, “Are you a Jeffers’ fan?”
She slowly put out her cigarette in an ashtray and looked at me slantwise, with her Veronica Lake peek-a-boo hair covering one eye.
“I am,” she said. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she allowed her eyes to sweep over my face and then descend to my hands enfolding a mug of coffee beside my volume of Jeffers’ verse.
“You’re thinking that two people sitting side by side in a diner less than a mile from Jeffers’ Carmel home is a miraculous coincidence, don’t you?”
“I know nothing but miracles.”
“A Whitman fan to boot, huh?”
She then smiled the most beautiful smile ever aimed at me.
We talked poetry for over an hour, until the waitress asked us to make room for others. We walked down to the beach where we spent a poetic afternoon together and that night we became lovers.
I had found my Una.
The Pilot School? Could Iris be onto something? If so, Rell’s was, as I suspected, a Faustian offer.
For three years Farrell had been working on his Ed.D. at Harvard where he had met Jim Slater, the city’s educational grants director. Slater had convinced Farrell that they both could fulfill their dissertation requirement by implementing an educationally “cutting edge” program at Classical. Their idea was to separate the seventh and eighth grades from the school’s upper classes, house them separately on the third floor and offer a special curriculum specifically designed for twelve-year-olds involving lots of field trips and “feel good” experiences. There was one hitch: Latin (the heart of the school’s classical curriculum) would be dropped until the ninth grade. The icing on the cake would be that all students passed. Flunking students, they argued, was a thing of the past, for no student should ever feel he is a failure.
“Self-esteem” was the current, fashionable, educational buzzword, and their program guaranteed it for everyone.
Maria Felix single-handedly defeated them. To every school group who would listen, she argued against their watered-down curriculum. She also discovered a little known fact: under the new teachers’ contract, Farrell needed a majority of the faculty to agree to the plan before he could implement it. She called a union meeting, explained Farrell’s proposal to the members and informed them that any teacher who taught in the Pilot School forfeited his union rights. Few people were willing to work for Farrell without union protection, and the faculty resoundingly rejected the proposal.
Neither Farrell nor Slater easily accepted defeat and vigorously sought support from the Alumni Association, receiving the promise of services from MIT, Harvard, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The city’s mayor also supported the proposal as long as there was no need for him to cough up any money for it.
Farrell called another assembly, subjecting us to more of his proselytizing as well as that of a number of handpicked speakers. Maria took them all on and eloquently defended the current curriculum, stating that Classical had stood for excellence for over 300 years and that its methods of teaching young people, if adhered to, would well prepare them for the future. Substantial support for Maria came from members of the Latin department, spearheaded by Fred Wright who argued that dropping Latin in the lower grades would sooner or later be reflected in lower SAT verbal scores.
Again, the proposal was defeated, but by a smaller majority. While the vote was taken by hand, Farrell stood in front of the assembly. Some teachers were afraid to be seen voting against him. Classics teacher Brenda Burke feigned illness, quickly fleeing the hall. When Maria observed her leaving, she quoted a favorite biblical passage, “Be ye hot or be ye cold, the lukewarm I spew forth from my mouth.”
Iris was breathing gently beside me. I looked at her beautiful, serene face and smiled: to be cold or lukewarm was foreign to her.
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” | 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) | “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”