HiLobrow is proud to present the seventh 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.
Ed’s fifth period class occurred immediately after the first lunch. Teachers dreaded this period when students were lethargic from eating, and for a teacher to defeat communal napping was a Herculean task. To make matters worse, Ed was leading his seniors through the dark forest of King Lear.
I sat at the back of the class, last aisle in a seat next to the window.
“Okay, class, clear your desks,” Ed said as straggling students rushed to their desks. “Time for a pop quiz.”
The class protested, “Not fair!”
“Life’s not fair,” Ed retorted. “Am I complaining about not being as smart as you guys?”
Ed had obviously established a good rapport with his students; to have accomplished it in such a short time boded well for him as a teacher.
Before sitting, Tim O’Donnell opened the window onto a day of bright sun. A waft of fresh air blew into the room, scattering a few papers and while pursuing his own, he noticed me and smiled a greeting. Except for dark shadows under his eyes, he looked well.
Ed announced five identification questions. After each one, he allowed a half-minute pause before proceeding. Tim quickly wrote down his answers and then gazed out the window; the quiz was obviously no challenge for him. Others sighed or tugged their hair.
After collecting the quizzes, Ed posed a discussion question: “Is King Lear a good man?”
The class was silent; Ed repeated the question. No response. He called on Cindy Muir, a red-haired beauty gazing into a compact mirror.
“Mr. Horgan, this play is boring,” she said.
“Let’s try to make it interesting,” Ed said, chuckling. “Is King Lear a good man?”
“He’s a jerk,” she said, making a face and loudly snapping shut her compact and batting her highly made-up eyes at Ed. The class laughed at her flagrant flirtation.
“Why is he a jerk?” Ed asked.
“Because he’s got a fat ego,” Cindy said. “All he wants is flattery from his daughters.”
“Does a fat ego make him an evil man?”
“Hmm,” was all she could manage. Ed waited.
“A jerk doesn’t have to be evil,” she finally said.
Ed nodded. “Do we have any proof,” he now asked, “that Lear is a good man?”
“There’s not enough stuff about him to know,” Cindy said, twirling her hair with her fingers.
Ed turned to the blackboard and in yellow chalk printed “TRAGIC FLAW.”
“Remember, a tragedy concerns a good man who experiences a fall, the result of a tragic flaw. Must we assume that Lear is good, or do we have proof within the text of the play that he’s an essentially good man?”
Jerome Smith, an African-American student, raised his hand.
“If he was evil,” Jerome said, “Kent and Cordelia wouldn’t have been so loyal to him.”
“Excellent, Jerome,” Ed said. “They obviously see the good in Lear and that’s the reason they remain faithful. But when Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan look at their father, what do they see?”
Tim’s hand flew up, “They see a foolish old man.”
“Is that his flaw, foolishness?” Ed asked.
Tim quoted Lear’s daughter Regan, “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
“Is Lear’s flaw his lack of self-knowledge?” Ed asked smiling, obviously pleased by Tim’s quoting from memory. A sleepy student raised her head from her desk to gaze at Tim.
Tim said, “I don’t think so.”
Ed waited patiently as Tim struggled to articulate his thoughts.
“Lear is flawed because he’s a lousy parent,” Tim said, nodding to himself as if just finalizing his opinion. “Yeah, that’s it, he’s a rotten father.”
Everyone had now turned toward Tim.
“Okay, then what evidence is there that he’s a bad parent?” Ed asked.
“Regan and Goneril are probably rotten human beings,” Tim said, “because Lear never showed them any approval or affection.”
Ed’s eyes widened at Tim’s mature understanding of the play’s familial theme.
“And Lear made the worst mistake a parent can make,” Tim continued, “he favored his youngest daughter Cordelia over his other daughters, and parents should never play favorites.” He paused and confidently repeated, “Yeah, Lear was a lousy father.”
I wondered if he were thinking about his own father.
Tim’s remarks led to a heated discussion on parenting. Taking advantage of the electricity in the air, Ed posed more and more thought-provoking questions, and their animated discussion led Ed and his students toward deeper insights. A look of surprise would swiftly cross Ed’s face as if he were saying to himself, “Why, of course” to a student’s comment.
I was fascinated to observe both students and teacher working together and appreciating a great work of art; in fact, the exegesis itself was art-in-the-making. By the end of the period everyone had participated — a compliment not only to Ed’s probing questions but also to his non-threatening, open personality.
Just before the end of the period Ed dictated the homework question: “Lear said to Cordelia, ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ How does Gloucester’s blindness nullify this remark? At least two paragraphs, please.”
“That’s too hard, Mr. Horgan,” Cindy said.
Before Ed could reply, the bell rang, and the kids darted for the door.
Ed shyly looked at me. “How’d we do?”
“A wonderful class!”
“After lunch they’re usually not very attentive.”
“You’re the flint that got the sparks flying.”
“No, Tim was the flint,” Ed said, shoving his books in his bag. “When Tim showed interest, the class woke up.”
“It was also your teaching,” I said.
“Thanks, John,” Ed said. I handed him my written observations.
“The homework question is tough,” I said.
“It’s got something to do with sight and insight.”
“I see,” I said hesitantly. We both laughed.
Back in my room, I organized my comments about Ed’s teaching. I still remember my last sentence, “He’s a born teacher.” There are people destined to be great teachers; the rest of us, although we may try our best, are fortunate to reach competence. Ed, I was certain, would become the kind of teacher who changes lives, the kind of teacher students never forget.
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”