HiLobrow is proud to present the fifth 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 reading Billy Budd when Jim Ford entered the teachers’ lounge. “This furniture is bloody awful!” he said, in his inimitable accent, a mixture of Boston and Dublin: Boston where he was born and raised, Dublin where he studied at Trinity. He had clear blue-eyes, a slim, compact body and hair unvisited by gray, looking more like forty than the fifty-one he was. He kept himself in shape by daily jogging four miles. He was also a beloved teacher, among both faculty and students.
“Better than what we had,” I said, “and beggars can’t be choosy.”
“True. I see we finally have a fridge. Will miracles never cease, but beware of those bearing gifts. What does Rell want?”
He poured coffee and opened the fridge. “Cream! What a luxury!” He sat in a club chair, crossing his legs and nodding his approval. He gazed at a red leather chair gleaming in a pool of morning light, the only old chair we kept because it was Bill Thompson’s favorite seat.
“Poor Thompson,” he said, “I expect to see him sitting there, smoking his pipe. I wonder who’ll take his place as chairman.” Since I hadn’t made up my mind to accept or reject the headmaster’s job offer, I didn’t mention it. Jim saw things as black or white without a gray middle ground. Anyone who worked directly for Farrell was, in his eyes, undoubtedly tainted. “Lie down with pigs and you’ll become one of them,” he would often say, referring to the school’s administration.
Jim lived for his students. They often sought him for his advice, both personal and academic. One of the many troubled kids he took under his wing was Kevin McCarthy, whose father had walked out on him, his younger brother, and his mother after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Opinion was that he could not face his wife’s illness, but there remained a monthly mortgage to pay and food to put on the table. When Kevin’s proud mother refused to accept welfare, he found a job as a short-order cook at a local Pancake House. He liked restaurant work and decided to apply for admission to the Rhode Island School for Culinary Arts.
Weary from working forty hours a week and from hours of studying, Kevin cut classes. His favorite napping hideout was the off-limits auditorium where Farrell found him, suspending him on the spot. Suspension meant that Kevin would fail every subject unless he received a waiver from the headmaster. Kevin explained his mother’s illness and his father’s abandonment, but Farrell remained unmoved, refusing a waiver.
Incensed by his insensitivity, Jim reminded Rell that he had often given waivers to students for trivial reasons like family vacations to Disneyland, visits to relatives over the holidays, and ski trips to Europe (for upper-class kids). No waiver for a working-class kid struggling to keep his family together was clearly unfair, Jim argued, if not downright cruel.
To Jim’s disgust, Farrell preached about academic standards, school rules and honesty, denying the waiver. So Jim played his trump card. Every Friday Channel 5’s Evening News ran a special segment called “A Job Well Done” that highlighted an extraordinary Boston high-school student. Jim called the station to inform them of Kevin’s story. When it was aired, thousands of New Englanders were touched, calling the station to offer money to aid Kevin and his family. Classical was also inundated by calls from newspapers wanting to feature him.
Jim returned to Farrell with an ultimatum: either Kevin received his waiver, or he would go public about Farrell’s mean-spirited denial. Kevin got his waiver, but Jim had moved to the top of Farrell’s hit list.
“The other day Rell was outside my room,” Jim said. “You know how he just stands there in the corridor with his arms crossed and legs spread apart — his Colossus of Rhodes stance?”
“Spying on you?” I asked.
“Just the usual terror tactics. I lost my English honors course over Kevin McCarthy, and I’ll pay for opposing his Pilot School,” Jim said between sips of coffee. “Wondering how you’ll pay can drive you nuts.”
“Watch your back.”
“Our way of life here, right?”
Ed Horgan had become a regular member of our teachers’ room, brave of him because most teachers would not be caught dead in Room B, where, as rumor had it, lurked the radicals plotting to destroy Farrell. But lately more and more teachers stopped in, invariably looking for Ed. Youth and good looks are a magnet, but with Ed it was more: with him teachers felt free to be themselves.
Ed’s non-teaching periods were usually occupied with someone in an alcove by the window. Today he was with Maria, telling Ed about her ailing mother. I had known Maria for years, but I knew next to nothing about her home life.
Latin teacher Brenda Burke started to drop into our lounge. When she first arrived at Classical, we were friendly until she realized that association with our group wouldn’t win her an AP class or a promotion. In her late thirties, single and still living in her parents’ home, she was a fashion plate. Today she wore a stunning pale blue Hermès scarf, accenting an exquisitely tailored navy blue silk suit.
“How’s your brother?” I asked
A frail boy, her brother Patrick had been my student. He loved poetry, often remaining after class to discuss an obscure verse he had not quite mastered. Now in his third year at Harvard, he had recently been diagnosed with a rare blood disease.
“He prays a great deal and troubled by the ‘Why me?’ so his faith is being sorely tested. Suffering is such a mystery, isn’t it?” She sighed. “But let’s talk about something more pleasant. The headmaster has generously agreed to pay all my expenses to the Advanced Placement conference for ancient languages in Philadelphia.”
“Philadelphia is a beautiful city,” I said, recalling my one trip there as the school’s debating coach.
“I’m lecturing on the Aeneid.”
“The Aeneid as Spiritual Odyssey.”
Brenda was Catholic, a daily communicant and a member of the Daughters of Mary Sodality.
“Do I see new blood?” she asked, glancing over at Ed.
“Mr. Thompson’s replacement,” I said, watching her eyes drink in Ed.
“Bill Thompson, oh my God,” she said, turning to me and running her hand through her abundant blond hair, “such a fine man. God forgive me, but I couldn’t make the wake, and the funeral was out of the question on a school day. Anyway my AP class and I were translating the Aeneid, the part when Laocoön warns the Trojans about the wooden horse. Did you attend the funeral Mass?”
“Yes, the Cardinal celebrated it.”
“My, such an honor!” Brenda said, her eyes widening in surprise. “He knew the Cardinal?”
“Yes. If the headmaster had known Bill’s link with the Cardinal, he might be alive today.”
A veil of “I don’t know what you’re talking about” descended upon Brenda’s pretty Irish face as she poured herself another cup of coffee.
Jim Ford and Fred Wright swept into the room, talking animatedly.
“Can you believe it?” Jim said, “Of all the talented people he could’ve chosen, he picked Carla DeStephano!”
“What’s up?” Maria asked.
“Carla is up! Farrell has raised her to the purple; she’s now the head of the language department.” Jim sank dejectedly into a chair.
Brenda flounced out the door with her coffee, and in stepped Norma Tracy, also impeccably dressed in a dark skirt, white blouse with French cuffs. “What’s the racket about?” she asked, heading for Mr. Coffee.
“Carla is the new the head of the language department,” Jim said. He hated Carla, with whom he once sparred over a student she flunked from sheer malice. The kids knew her reputation: kiss her ass or else.
Pouring cream into her coffee, Norma said, “The sine qua non for promotion here is stupidity or wickedness — or better yet, both,” and she laughed her deep laugh, one also filled with regret, for Norma genuinely felt bad when worthy teachers were passed over for promotions. She looked over at Maria, and I knew what she was thinking: Maria should have been chosen as chairman.
“Farrell loathes her, and she loathes him,” Jim said, “but Carla will do his bidding. Maria, you should’ve been appointed.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“I taught Carla French grammar because her Wellesley professors considered it a bourgeois preoccupation, but I don’t have the real credentials. I don’t kiss ass and won’t insult teachers with savage evaluations — but Carla will.”
Tenure was no longer sufficient protection for teachers: a negative teaching evaluation for two consecutive years could result in dismissal, the only “legitimate” way Rell could get rid of teachers on his hit list.
“Ed shouldn’t hear all this negative stuff,” I said, noticing him listening to us.
“Sorry, Ed,” Jim said.
“You’ve a right to your opinion,” Ed said.
Jim lit a cigarette, “He’s destroyed a lot of careers here, but it’s the deaths he’s caused that haunt me.”
“That’s a strong accusation,” Ed said.
Jim exhaled a cloud of smoke, “Take my advice. Teach the kids, and at the last bell exit here as fast as you can.” Ed thanked Jim for his advice and departed for class. Jim turned to me, “Keep an eye on him, he’s an innocent.”
Ed was luckier than either Jim or I. When we started teaching at Classical, we had no mentors to walk us through Classical’s field of explosive mines; consequently, we stepped on most of them.
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” | 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” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”