HiLobrow is proud to present the thirty-third 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.
On Christmas Day we had a full house: my parents and in-laws, my two kids home from college (Leland celebrated with his San Francisco friends), Iris’ unmarried sister Mabel and my unmarried brother Victor filled the extended dining room table. Friends dropped by all day, including Ed and Ronny. Ed and Iris were talking when Ronny took me aside and asked if we could meet during the vacation week, and not to let Ed know. I agreed to meet her Wednesday afternoon.
By mid-week the house was finally quiet. Meredith and Jason had gone off to ski in Vermont. Iris had enrolled in a Spanish cuisine course at the Adult Center for Education. I had twenty-one senior letters of recommendation to write and second marking period grades to finish.
The bell rang at noon. Ronny and I went into the kitchen, and I put on coffee. Ronny has an aristocratic, calm beauty, but today she looked anxious, her brow furrowed, her mouth a tight line.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, pouring coffee into white mugs.
She sighed. “Ed’s not himself.”
I sat across from her. “Not himself?”
She smiled weakly. “We used to talk all the time, but now he barely speaks and is always involved in school work. Either he’s marking papers, reading, writing letters of recommendation, or planning classes.”
I laughed, “That’s the life of a teacher.”
“We don’t do anything together, and this business with Timothy O’Donnell — he’s lost sleep over it.”
“The first year of teaching is the worst, especially at a school like Classical.”
She sipped her coffee.
“But Ed’s changed,” she continued. “His face has a hard look that wasn’t there before. We used to laugh uproariously at mere nothings, but now to get a smile out of him, well, it’s almost impossible.”
“Just a stage he’s going through.”
“No, it’s more serious. I think Ed’s lost his faith.”
“He’s stopped attending church.”
“Several weeks ago.”
“Ronny, Ed’s young, and temporarily losing one’s faith is a rite of passage for young people.”
“I haven’t lost mine.”
“You’ve never had doubts?”
“Yes, but I’ve never lost my faith. Ed’s faith meant so much to him. One of the reasons I fell in love with him is that he’s so — so spiritual.”
“Did he actually say he lost his faith?”
She looked down at the table, blushing. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I read Ed’s diary. I didn’t mean to, it was open on his desk. I snooped out of love.”
“His entries concern a loss of direction, good and evil, truth and beauty. It’s heartbreaking to read about his —”
“He’s young and idealistic, and he’s now seeing the world for what it is, but he’ll survive. We all go through it.”
I told her how students and faculty reacted to Ed, how they sought him out because he is good, fair and non-judgmental, how they are affirmed by being in his presence, how he has helped Tim.
“Then he should be happy — not miserable.”
“Ronny, you’re worrying over nothing. Perhaps you feel left out because he devotes so much time to school.”
“In other words, I’m being selfish?”
I poured us a second cup of coffee. “It’s quite natural to crave the attention of someone you love.”
“What should I do?”
“Keep an eye on him.”
She looked perplexed but suddenly nodded as if she had settled something in her mind. “We’ll marry when he has a permanent job,” she said. “What are his chances at Classical?”
“Let’s worry about it in the spring when the hiring is done,” I said. “We’re all pulling for Ed, so don’t lose faith.”
She darted me a look. “No pun intended.”
She smiled, “May I ask you a personal question?”
“Are you happy as a teacher?”
“It’s a hard job with little affirmation. Society doesn’t value teachers. As for students, you never know if you’ve reached them, except for the student who out of the blue writes you a thank-you note. I store them in a shoebox, and when I’m low, I read them. I’m then glad I’m a teacher and wouldn’t exchange my job for any other.”
I helped her on with her raincoat. She kissed me on the cheek, thanked me for being a good listener and departed.
It later occurred to me that my last thank-you note from a student came from Tim O’Donnell. He said my teaching inspired him. A vague compliment, but I treasured it, adding it to my collection. I didn’t tell Ronny, however, how sparse my collection is.
A shoebox of a few notes, enough to justify a lifetime of teaching?
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”