The Most Egregious Word
Sometimes even the best of intentions go astray . . .
The faux-leather chair squeaked every time she moved — a twitch of her ankle, an adjustment of her skirt. The narrow walls and low ceiling muffled every sound, like a tomb. Professor Okafor glanced at her watch. Several minutes passed, a quarter of an hour. Their pens continued to whisper over the copies of her document until, finally, the head of the committee lowered his. He was a senior now, Sacha Moyens, relatively unchanged from the freshman in her Intro to South American Literature course three years ago — when there had still been an Intro to South American Lit course. The same indolent student who wrote a barely adequate final essay on Allende’s House of Spirits, and who spent more effort composing the emails protesting his grade than on the paper itself. Sacha shared a few quiet comments with the rest of the committee as Prof. Okafor straightened in the chair. It squeaked.
“Thanks for coming in tonight, Professor.” Sacha typed on his phone as he spoke.
“It’s my pleasure.”
The rest of the committee had also pulled out their phones. Click-click-click. Sacha smiled then typed something else, laughed, and showed the student beside him something. Prof. Okafor had to wait for him to continue.
“So, how’s freshmen lit been going?”
“Wonderful. The college accepted such a…” She stopped herself. Peytie Morgenstern, third from the left, had deemed the term ‘gifted’ offensive to less academically inclined students last year. Peytie stared at her now, dared her to say it. “…such a bright group of students for the incoming class.”
“Yes,” said Sacha, drawing the professor’s eye from Peytie. He shuffled through his papers. “Your class has been going really good this semester. Only one student concern on record, right Ethan?”
Professor Okafor had never had Ethan Bachman in class, but Rhiannon Slattery, one of the former history adjuncts, had. One of the last things Rhiannon had spoken to the her about was how she was refusing to stop teaching Hitler’s invasion of Poland just because it upset Ethan, whose great-grandfather had been a German soldier.
“That’s correct. Ladonia Mills felt the word ‘niggardly’ wasn’t appropriate when talking about A Christmas Carol.”
Peytie leaned across the table towards Sacha. “It’s been added to the do not read list, right?”
“Yeah,” Ethan answered. “A few students from lower income families felt it perpetuated negative images of the poor.”
“I was asking Sacha,” Peytie snapped.
“Like are you really?”
Sacha regained control of the table. “Okay, Peytie. Ethan. I’m sure Professor Okafor would like to get out of here and spend the evening eating dinner with her family. Which really, Professor, you could’ve done ages ago if you hadn’t changed so much stuff here.” He held up his copy of her proposed syllabus, now adorned in purple ink. The others did the same, holding up their copies like Cervantes’ Knight of Mirrors confronting Don Quixote. But, though they were experts at transforming windmills, these students knew nothing of defeating giants. Prof. Okafor took a deep breath.
“It has been my habit, throughout my career, to amend my syllabus every other semester or so to keep the course fresh for both myself and my students.” She plucked a piece of lint from her skirt, and the chair squeaked. The room felt warmer now; her legs stuck to the faux-leather. She knew this was by design. Professor Barton, from Philosophy, said the committee had someone in the back adjust the thermostat during cross-examination.
Once he’d finished replying to a text, Sacha responded. “But you know, Professor, each of these changes has to be vetted by the committee. It’s gonna take a long time.”
“I understand, Sacha.”
“It might not even be approved until next fall.”
“You should have as much time as you need.”
The committee exchanged glances. She wasn’t rising to the bait, and it made them uncomfortable. Peytie and Ethan watched Sacha, as did Prof. Okafor. She steeled herself for another counterargument. For the first time all evening, Sacha’s eyes met hers, but it was only for a moment. Then his gaze returned to his phone.
“You’ve been very helpful, Professor, thanks. That should be it for now.”
The chair squeaked as she rose. The Berber carpet absorbed the sound of her footsteps.
“Oh, Professor, one last thing.”
She turned. The banner above the table framed the thirteen-person committee like a perverse tableaux of the last supper:
The Student Committee for Offensive Investigation
Sacha, in the center, the same blank face he wore when he’d sat in her class texting a girlfriend or checking out highlights from last year’s NBA finals, asked a final question.
“You wouldn’t know anything about the Unaccountable Adjunct, would you?”
Prof. Okafor smiled. “I’m afraid I don’t, but if I learn anything, I’ll be sure to pass it on to administration.” As she left, she stumbled on a snag in the carpet. Behind her, someone snickered, but she didn’t turn to look. She stepped out of the multi-purpose room and shoved her shaking hands into her pockets.
The student union was busy but subdued. Most students chatted quietly over an evening coffee. A few sat quietly by themselves, studying their textbooks or reading on Kindles or tablets. All around them — posted on the walls, pinned to the bulletin boards — hung faces, the word MISSING stamped above. A few flyers were crisp, new, but most had wrinkled or torn, the smiling image faded, glasses, missing teeth and less appropriate drawings written, in that familiar purple ink, over faces now forgotten. Those eyes which had not been scribbled out followed Prof. Okafor as she walked down the hall, the weight of them slowing her pace. The exit, with its clear glass doors, welcomed her, but as it closed behind her, she saw Sacha and Peytie interrupting one of the silent readers, pulling the Kindle from his hands as the faces on the flyers watched. Prof. Okafor forced herself to keep walking.
She instinctively gripped the collar of her coat to keep it closed against the bitter December wind as she hurried through the quad, but the wind was not nearly as cold as it should have been for this time of year. Several students were even wearing t-shirts, making her feel even more conspicuous in her tweed coat. They all seemed to be watching her, like the flyers in the student union. Fortunately, the walk to the English building was short and the stretch to the faculty wing very quiet.
Three of the full-time faculty offices remained vacant. As she passed the small, empty kitchen, Prof. Okafor remembered her first year as a full-time faculty member, tenure track. Each evening, before most had left for the day, she and her fellow instructors would gather over cups of coffee, or in Prof. Mayberry’s case tea, discussing the latest NY Times bestseller list or, more likely, gossiping about the adjuncts. In two decades of higher education, Mayberry, the longest-serving faculty member, thought she had seen everything.
Prof. Okafor stopped outside Mayberry’s office. Janitorial had still not come by — likely on the SCOI’s orders — and the door remained covered in chewing gum, spray paint, and feces, the messages racist, misogynist, bigot still visible, a warning to the rest of the department. Prof. Okafor continued to her own office in case anyone should pass by and catch her staring.
She kept the door open as she grabbed a stack of papers that needed grading and shut down her computer. Her hand kept slipping off the mouse as she tried to click on the Start bar. She gave up and pressed the power button on the hard drive instead. Sacha’s question had unnerved her more than she expected. She knew he would ask — he was asking everyone — but she couldn’t shake the feeling she had given something away. That stumble kept replaying in her mind. She’d merely caught her heel on the carpet, but what if they saw it as something more? Was it something more? She shoved the ungraded papers in her bag along with her empty tumbler. Then she contemplated taking more. There wasn’t much. Almost all of her books had already been removed, and several posters as well, in keeping with SCOI guidelines. Except for a few course books, only a set of Harry Potter occupied the once-full shelves. She reached for them then stopped. It would be too suspicious, she thought. Besides, of course she was coming back. She reached for the light switch, hesitated, then grabbed the framed family portrait off her desk.
The faculty parking lot was only a five minute walk away, and her heavy tote bag banged against her side with every step. Campus seemed emptier than it had been only fifteen minutes ago, or was she imagining things? She quickened her pace. Her car waited for her in its normal spot — second row, fourth space — and she had gone so far as to unlock the door when…
“Professor. Professor, wait!” The young woman came running down the steps into the lot, a headscarf partially obscuring her face.
The pepper spray was in her coat pocket, but hindered by her bag, she couldn’t reach it. Prof. Okafor quickly loaded her bag into the car.
But Prof. Okafor did not pause. “What are you doing here, Farhat?”
“I had a question…”
Prof. Okafor slammed the door shut. “You can’t ask me here. You know that.” She looked up and down the length of the parking lot, searching for members of the SCOI.
“I was careful. I watched the student union the whole time. They’ve all gone back to the dorms.”
“You can’t know that. You can never know that.” She refused to look at Farhat and walked around to the driver’s side door.
“But I wanted to ask about the assignment…”
“You have a question, you ask me off-campus on the secure network like everyone else. Goodnight, Farhat.”
“Goodnight.” She climbed into the car and started it immediately, only glancing at Farhat to make sure she wouldn’t hit the girl as she pulled out. She didn’t even pause to plug in her phone, even though the battery was down to 17%. She drove down the tree-lined drive that led to Main Street, a once beautiful view now marred by the effigies of former faculty that hung from the branches. At the end of the drive, she looked left to make sure she could safely turn. A straw-filled purple Converse sneaker — identical to the ones Kathy wore — dangled in the corner of her eye. From Main Street, Prof. Okafor entered the highway and drove as fast as her Prius allowed.
No matter how loud she cranked up the holiday station on satellite radio, she couldn’t get Farhat out of her head. Did she have a genuine question, or was she a plant? Did Sacha put her up to it? What if he’d had her record the entire conversation? Would that be enough to incriminate her? Why hadn’t she just kept her mouth shut? “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” started to make her sick.
The outside lights were already on as she pulled in her driveway. She glimpsed Daniel through the kitchen window, cooking dinner, and through an upstairs window, she could see Belinda on the phone, talking to one of her many friends. They were there. They were fine. The normalcy of the scene helped put her at ease. She checked her make-up in the mirror, made sure she didn’t look upset, then finally got out of the car.
Inside, she lugged her heavy bag into the front hall and dropped it by the door. Daniel peeked into the hall, knife raised, but when he saw her, his fear turned to relief.
“Thank god. I was starting to freak out. Shit, the rolls are burning.”
She followed him into the kitchen where she was assaulted with the smell of roast chicken. “I warned you it might take longer with all the changes I made.”
“You shouldn’t have attempted that many. It’ll look suspicious.”
She gave him a quick peck on the lips then stole a slice of green pepper from the cutting board. “Knowing Sacha, he’d find it suspicious if I didn’t try.”
“He already doesn’t trust you. You don’t need to give him any more excuses to investigate.”
She grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “It’s going to be alright.”
“That’s what Kathy said.” He scraped the rolls into a basket, wielding the spatula like a weapon. “Just…promise me you’ll stay under the radar next semester. No sanctioned rallies, no more changes to your syllabus, no more antagonizing the committee.”
She wrapped her arms around him. “Okay. I promise. How long until dinner?”
“About fifteen minutes.”
“Call me when it’s ready.”
After carrying her things into the study, she went upstairs to check on Belinda. Her knock was met with a brusque reply.
“I just wanted to say hello.”
Belinda yanked open the door, her phone pressed to her ear. “Hello.” Then she slammed it shut. “No, it was my mom…I know…”
“When I was sixteen…” Prof. Okafor sighed and returned downstairs to the study. Before turning on her computer, she closed each curtain then set up the false backdrop that hid her built-in bookshelves, replacing them with a view of an anonymous concrete wall. Not that she was planning to record tonight, but at least it was prepared if she decided to change her mind. When she logged on, the first thing she saw was a Google alert on Prof. Mayberry. The comfort she’d felt upon returning home vanished as she clicked on the local news article.
No Leads in Case of Missing University Professor
Professor Kathy Mayberry was last seen two weeks ago on campus collecting her belongings. She had been fired after publishing a satirical article on the current state of public college campuses since Richardson vs. Pennsylvania State University. The SCOI determined the article was severely damaging and offensive to the student body.
Mayberry and several colleagues at state colleges nationwide have been protesting that the ruling has negatively affected academic integrity. While some academics moved to private universities or positions overseas to avoid adjusting to the ruling, since the Supreme Court decision forcing academics to remain at their posts, the number of rallies and sometimes violent protests against the new regulations regarding offensive and harassing behavior have increased.
Despite anonymous reports to the contrary, local SCOI chapter leader Sacha Moyens has denied any involvement in Mayberry’s disappearance, though he publicly stated that anything that may have occurred to her “she brought on her own head.”
Prof. Okafor closed the article without reading any more. She opened a new tab and logged into her private email. There at the top of the inbox was a message from Farhat, sent only ten minutes ago, with a question on the latest assignment. Prof. Okafor shook her head. She was letting her paranoia get the best of her and felt guilty for being so abrupt with the girl. Farhat was only a freshman. She didn’t know any better. Prof. Okafor began composing a reply, clarifying the essay question. On the other side of the door, the muffled voice of Daniel called up the stairs. A door was opened then thrown shut, and Belinda shouted a response as her footsteps stomped down the stairs.
“I don’t know. She’s probably in her lair.” She knocked sharply on the study door. “Mom, Dad says it’s time for dinner.”
“Be right there!”
“He says it’s getting cold.” She yanked open the door. “Can we please eat? I’m starving and we have to wait for you.”
“I’m coming. This email is important. I just have to…”
“One of your real students or one of the others?” She crossed her arms.
“I’m almost finished.”
Belinda rolled her eyes and stomped away. “It’s always one of them.”
“Could you shut the door, please?”
But Belinda was gone. Prof. Okafor knew she’d been heard, but it didn’t matter. With a sigh, she went to close the door and spotted a pair of headlights in the driveway.
“Fine! I’ll shut the door.” Her daughter came stomping back down the hall.
“Belinda, are you expecting one of your friends?”
“No, why…” But then Belinda, too, saw the headlights.
“Go sit at the table with your father.”
“I said go.” Prof. Okafor hid the backdrop and shut down her computer. She was just locking the study door when someone rang the doorbell. She took a deep breath and composed herself then opened the door.
“Sacha, what an unexpected surprise.”
“Evening, Professor. Did I come at a bad time?”
“We were just sitting down to dinner.”
“Perfect. I’m starving.” He waited for her to step aside. With no phone in his hand to distract his gaze, his eyes never left her. Prof. Okafor ushered him in.
“I’ll show you to the dining room.”
He followed her down the hall. Daniel and Belinda sat still, backs straight, in front of their empty plates.
“Daniel, Belinda, you know Sacha Moyens, head of the SCOI. Sacha, have a seat here, across from Belinda. I’ll go get an extra setting.”
She retreated for the kitchen but, before she could retrieve another plate from the cupboard, she had to stop her hands from shaking.
When she returned to the dining room, Belinda was readying a plate of food for Sacha, who had taken the professor’s place at the table. Prof. Okafor stood there, holding the spare plate and silverware in her hands, not knowing what to do. Sacha finished sipping a glass of Prof. Okafor’s wine. Red stained his upper lip, like a child drinking from a juice cup.
“Have a seat, Professor.” He dabbed his upper lip with a cloth napkin. Red still stuck to his blonde, peach fuzz mustache.
Prof. Okafor took the empty seat across from her daughter who had just finished serving Sacha. She tried to meet Belinda’s eyes, ensure her that everything would be alright, but Belinda stared to her right, looking somewhere towards their family picture from Disney World.
“Thanks for inviting me in, Professor.” Sacha’s voice attacked the silence with blunt force.
“It was a welcome surprise. I didn’t know you would reached a decision on my syllabus so quickly.”
Sacha laughed and cut into Daniel’s roasted chicken.
“That’ll be a few more weeks yet. No, I’m here because…” He shoved the chicken in his mouth. “…because of a letter I found.” Still chewing, he removed a crumpled envelope from his pocket. Prof. Okafor felt her heartbeat quicken. What had been sent to the office? Had she made a mistake? Had someone else?
“University College London?” He read dramatically as if he had never seen the envelope before. Then he tossed it down the table to her. No one had made a mistake, she saw. The envelope listed her home address. “So you’ve been applying to colleges abroad?” He stuck another piece of chicken into his mouth.
“I never applied.”
“Of course not. That would be against the law.” He took another sip of wine.
“I have a cousin who works there. In the dean’s office. She put me up for an open position without my knowledge.”
A sheen of sweat had formed on Daniel’s forehead.
Sacha grinned. “A cousin? That would be Jacinda Williams, right?”
Before the professor could respond, Belinda snapped.
“Are you spying on us?”
“Belinda, please.” Prof. Okafor said, but Sacha held up a hand, silencing her.
“Now, Miss Okafor-Sines, why…”
“You dig up my mom’s extended family, go through her mail, and you know exactly when we’re sitting down to dinner? God you’re worse than a telemarketer.”
“This house is located off-campus. It’s not owned by or paid for by the college in any way. My dad bought it. So exactly what right do you think you have to be here?”
“Your mother invited me.”
“Yeah, of her own free will I’m sure. God, my friends and I are getting really sick of you braindead deadbeats. Thanks to you we’re stuck learning advanced Dr. Seuss and the basics of emotions.”
“Belinda!” Daniel scolded. “What your mouth in front of guests.”
“You mean watch my mouth in front of him.”
Daniel looked to Prof. Okafor for assistance, but she hadn’t the will to reprimand her daughter.
Sacha stared at them all then burst into a laugh and poured himself another glass of wine. “You sound just like your mom when she’d go on a rant in class. Tell me, Professor, how often didn’t we meet your expectations? The crap she used to pull. Pushing us to discuss what we were uncomfortable with. Making us read about subjects that didn’t interest us. Forcing us to collaborate with people we didn’t like, like making Peytie work with that child molester, Higgins.”
“Alexander was not a child molester. He read Japanese manga.”
“And it made Peytie uncomfortable but still you forced them to team up on that stupid group project. That was the whole reason she failed.”
“Peytie failed because she only attended class fifty percent of the time and handed in just two of the four required essays.”
“Yeah, but those assignments were terrible. Disgusting, the books you made us try to read. Why do you think we got them removed from the syllabus? And, to this day, you still put up a stink about it. Pisses everyone off. No wonder they call you the weave-headed bitch.”
Belinda leapt from the table, the carving knife in her hand. “Don’t talk to my mom that way, you ignorant, little shit.”
“Belinda!” Daniel shouted.
But Sacha easily knocked the knife from Belinda’s hand then grabbed her by the hair, shoving her face into the food on the table.
“Do you know how easily I could have the student body here? One post online, one text, and mobs of protestors would storm this house, drag each of you out, and string you up on Campus Drive as an example of oppression. We wouldn’t need the art department to make puppets then. All I need to tell them is how cruel your family treats the student body. Emotions are weapons, Miss Okafor-Simes. You might think you’re hot shit, but I wield them better than anyone.”
He pulled her back from the table and let her fall to the floor. Daniel hurried to her side. Belinda’s face had been smashed into both the mashed sweet potatoes and the salad. Orange lumps and bits of lettuce and pepper stuck to her face like a grotesque mask. Prof. Okafor could see the tears underneath.
“Well, let’s forget about UCL for a sec, Professor, and get straight to the point.” Sacha fixed his shirt collar. “Prof. Mayberry was kind enough to tell us you’re the Unaccountable Adjunct before she took her little trip. I was willing to let bygones be bygones, but your daughter’s comments have greatly offended me. So, the SCOI is going to offer up two choices. You can cease and desist teaching banned materials through these illegal online classes and issue a public declaration that you were wrong to manipulate easily impressionable minds like that. Or we can hunt down each of your students — past and present — and discredit their professional and academic careers. Make sure labels like racist, xenophobic, and misogynist follow them wherever they go. And I think I’ll start with your daughter, a promising high school scholar whom I’m sure her school would be devastated to learn posted on Instagram about how immigrants and refugees are second-class citizens, along with a picture of her at an anti-immigration rally.”
“That’s not true,” Belinda was shaking now, even as her father helped clean her face with a napkin.
“It doesn’t have to be. But once something’s online, you can’t take it back, can you? So, Professor, what do you think?” He sipped the wine.
Prof. Okafor was still sitting at the table. She hadn’t been able to move but found her voice now, and her words came out as slow and deliberate as her movements.
“I think it’s sad, Sacha, that you and your generation took a legitimate student movement about real concerns of racism and sexism on campus and twisted it into something ugly.” She rose from the table, eyes focused on her untouched plate, but with the image of her husband and daughter huddling on the floor in her mind. “But the balance of power is shifting. I’m sure you can feel it. That’s why you and the others have been so scared. There are so many students, like Belinda, who want to learn again, who seek out my classes. What you have built, it’s unsustainable. ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’”
“Let me guess, your mom said that.”
“No. Anaïs Nin. But you wouldn’t know her work. You had it banned when her stories challenging gender roles made you uncomfortable.”
And then, with as little thought as she had ever given anything in her life, she took the metal, carving fork out of the chicken and jammed it into Sacha’s stomach.
Sacha staggered back into the wall, knocking the Disney picture to the floor. He smiled, shocked, and slid to the carpet. He looked up at her as if he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t form the words. Belinda ran to her side, close without touching, and they watched him die in silence. Dark blood that matched the color of the wine coated his stomach, staining his pale green t-shirt. When he was gone, Belinda crouched down and removed the picture from beneath his body, cleaned the blood with a napkin. Some globs of potato remained in her hair. Prof. Okafor wanted to remove them but found she had trouble raising her arms.
“You two should go,” she said. “You weren’t here. You were on your way to your mother’s, Daniel. You found out I was trying to secure a job outside of the country and you were upset. I’ll hide the…”
“No.” Belinda gripped her mother’s hand. “Don’t hide anything.”
“Set up the backdrop and the camera.” She stared at Sacha’s body. “They’ve taken enough from your side. We have no reason to hide.”
They both looked to Daniel, who remained on the floor. He removed his glasses, cleaned them, and returned them to his face.
“I wasn’t here,” he said softly. “I was on my way to my mother’s.”
“I was on my way to my mother’s,” he repeated then hurried from the room without looking at the body.
Belinda squeezed the professor’s hand. “Go set up your camera, Mom.”
Later, Prof. Okafor sat in her study, the false concrete wall behind her, the camera waiting to record. The mask covered her face and the voice manipulator was in her hand. Sacha’s body lay propped on the floor. Belinda stood behind the camera, ready, but Prof. Okafor waited until she heard Daniel leave the house. They would have to do something about Sacha’s car, she thought, as he drove away, then returned her mind to the task at hand. She nodded to Belinda, and the camera panned to Sacha’s body. She chose her words carefully.
“Students and Educators of the Movement for True Education…”
Sacha’s phone began to ring.