… it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.
– W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Afternoons, just past lunch when her 5 yr olds slowed slightly from digestion-inspired fatigue, were when Ms. Newsome turned to the trusted circle rug. Her band of little humans would gather round sitting “Indian style” and awaiting the days letter. Today’s letter was K.
From the large foam border running the north wall of her classroom she dislodged the foam letter K. It was a dimpled purple with proud battle scars where students had bent or bitten or tugged its sans serif ends over the past few years. It may have been her best investment thus far as a teacher. Every one quieted quickly in hopes they might get to hold the mystical letter or be the first to offer up a word whose beginning it graced.
Ms. Newsome held it with two hands above her head. “Class, today’s letter is the letter ____?”
“K!” they shouted in surprising unison as they filled in the space she’d left hanging in the air.
“That’s right. The letter K. Can anyone tell me a word that starts with K?”
“Kite!” little William Sheffeld blurted out.
“Remember to raise your hand and wait to be called upon.” Ms. Newsome walked the tightrope between encouragement and discipline like a big top performer.
“Katie, would you like to give us a K word?”
“Cut.” She spoke so softly the class was still waiting for her answer.
“Would you please say that louder so all your classmates can hear, Katie?”
“Cut.” If anything, the second attempt was actually softer but her classmates had quieted, a haphazarded show of support.
“That’s very close. It has the right ‘kuh’ sound but cut is spelled with a C.”
Katie had curled up inside herself like a potato bug.
“Anyone else have a K word? Yes, Douglas.”
“Korea. North Korea.”
Oh, how they never ceased amazing her. She was proud to be their teacher. Before she could affirm his answer, Douglas began to speak more.
“Do they have first-strike capabilities yet?”
“Douglas, I don’t think– ”
“What’s a ‘first strike’?”
Before Ms. Newsome could identify from whom that question originated, know-it-all Samuel Klein was answering:
“That means they can launch warheads able to fly over the whole ocean and hit American cities.” With perfect timing, tomboy Lisa Sands said: “KAHHBOOMMM!” She smacked her cupped palms together to great effect. Katie began to whimper.
“Now class, I need you to focus.”
“Kashmir begins with a K!” Was that shy Francis?
“Does Caliphate start with a K?”
“Douglas where did you learn– ”
“Khomeini starts with a K!”
“So does Kykes!”
“CLASS!” Ms. Newsome screamed.
Their wide-eyed stares full of fear and disorientation like she’d set off a flash grenade. Silence but for Katie’s sniffles as she tried to halt her tears.
“Return to your desks. Place your heads down. And close your eyes.”
They scurried into order. Their desks in five rows. Each row with three students. They had all turned their heads to the right, away from Ms. Newsome as she switched off the lights. For the remaining 86 minutes of their school day, not a word was uttered. The only sound was the awkward squeak of the letter K being pressed back into its foam setting.