The Search for a Maskil :: N2W 221112

Instructor Will Webster smiled as he walked into his high school classroom. The students had been chatting but quickly turned their attention to him as he stepped up to his desk.  They knew from experience that something different was about to happen because Mr. Webster was well known for surprising his class with the unexpected and their desks had been rearranged to allow for a table to be placed in the center of the desks, but nothing was on it – yet.

“Good morning class,” he offered in his I-can’t-wait-to-give-you-this-assignment voice. Several of the students smiled as they recognized that voice, his anxious tone. Yep, something was coming, and it would likely be fun.

As several answered with a “good morning” of their own, he turned and wrote one word on the board in bold capital letters: M – A – S – K – I – L.

He then turned to them and asked, “Do any of you happen to know the definition of this word?”

Most of their faces radiated that they had no idea, but two hands went up.

“Ah, Havilah. I’m not surprised that you’ve seen this word before but Jerry, how do you know it?”

“My older sister had this class last year and told us all about it. So, I was pretty sure it was coming.”

“What did she tell you it means?”

“It’s in the Bible, but we don’t know it’s meaning because that’s lost to history.  You use it to mean something important but unknown at the time. You’re about to say something like we’re going to find the maskil about something. My bet is that you’re going to put something on that table and we’re going to have to find something hidden about it.”

“Excellent!  Your sister, was her name, Catherine?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I recall her well and now know you have a hard act to follow.”

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”

“Havilah, did he leave anything out?”

“Only details and that there are two meanings. One doesn’t apply here. It’s a name for Jewish believers who follow a certain version of Judaism, like Christian denominations. We’re practicing Jews, but we don’t follow that teaching. The way you’re using the word is from both the Bible and Jewish Tanakh, which is the Christian Old Testament. It’s used in the book of Psalms as a type of some of the songs, but we no longer know for sure what it meant at the time.”

“Wow, Havilah. You know more about it than I do.”

“Jerry’s sister, Catherine is a good friend of mine, so I heard about it too.”

“Ah – so my mystery is partially blown. Okay, thank you but let’s get to work. Yes, I want you to find the maskil, the important hidden value of something.”

“Jennifer, can I ask you to open the center cabinet and on the middle shelf you’ll find a terrarium. Please bring it out and set it carefully on the small table where everyone can see it. Thank you. While she does that, everyone else look at the screen and find your name. I’ve assigned you to teams of three each, except for two groups that only have two.”

He waited while everyone found their group assignment and Jennifer completed her task.

N2W crab n shell

“Okay, everyone, please gather about the terrarium and you’ll find two main objects, a hermit crab and a big shell. Your task for class today is to find the maskil about these two things. You can use your computers to do web searches, the good old Encyclopedia Britannica is there on the shelf for any of you who prefer old-school research as are several other books about these two objects.

“You and your teams have 30 minutes to dig and find what’s important but hidden about these two objects. And just so the rest of you know, Jerry and Havilah do not have a head start. Catherine and her class had to find the maskil about something different. Get into your groups, pick a spokesperson, do some observation, ask around because you can share between groups if it helps and find what’s so important about that hermit crab and that shell which is not well-known – that will be the maskil. Your 30 minutes starts now.”

The class scrambled, the groups formed, spokespersons were selected and there were lots of visits to the terrarium with students looking for clues, anything that Mr. Webster might have added that was not obvious, notebooks were opened as brainstorming started.

He smiled as he noted Peggy, a very small Asian girl jet over to the encyclopedia to find the article about hermit crabs no doubt, but she was immediately followed by Fred who wasn’t in her group so the two of them grinned as they negotiated over the volume with the desired article. It looked like they were forming their own group by the bookshelves. I may have to watch those two – ah, to be that young again. . .

The clock kept ticking down the minutes. Discussions within each team were lively. Many of the teams sent envoys to him with questions, knowing he would not tell them what the maskil was, but knew that otherwise he’d help them with their search. Many of their questions were about scope; did the terrarium count somehow, or the sand inside? Did it matter that one was alive, and the other had been? Is the maskil something scientific or art somehow. Can a maskil be something that was only inspirational as it might mean in the Old Testament book of Psalms?

He frequently answered, “That idea merits both consideration and research,” and sent them smiling back to their group.

“Five minutes everyone. You have five minutes to organize your findings and I’m changing one thing for each group. Spokespeople – you are suddenly unavailable for the presentation of findings to the class, just like what happens in real life. Designate someone else from your group to present the findings and be ready to roll in – um, four minutes and forty-five seconds.”

The class moaned and laughed because Mr. Webster was well known for throwing this kind of curve. Their only option was to quickly deal with the change and carry on. Note pages were shoved back and forth, decisions made and faces who thought they could sit back as others spoke, now were digging to find the courage to be the spokesperson.

“Time everyone. You have what you have. I need everyone’s attention to the front of the room where the new spokesperson for group three will share their findings.”

“You’re not doing the groups in order?”

“Nope. Life is annoyingly random sometimes. You must be the new spokesperson for group three Eric, correct?”

Eric sighed, “Yes.”

“Well – get up here and let’s do this.”

“Our group thinks the maskil might be an artistic statement about symmetry and non.  If you were to slice the shell up, it would reveal an amazing geometric design whereas the crab is different, he has many different parts with some symmetrical parts but not as a whole. The shell is artistically beautiful, but the crab is not. The shell is now dead, but the crab is very much alive. We think the maskil is a statement about symmetry and life.”

“Nicely done Eric. Group five, you’re up.”

Group five stuck with the size of the crab and shell. The shell was way too big but was the only shell in the terrarium so when the crab needed a larger shell, there would not be one. This group thought the maskil might be the problem and pending struggle that the crab would face. Sometimes good answers just don’t exist. Life was a struggle.

He clicked through each group as quickly as he could, allowing no Q &A, but just kept the ideas coming.

As the last group shared their findings, he noted the clock was fast approaching the end of class.  “Thank you, Micah. Anything further?”

“No sir, I‘m done.”

“Great jobs everyone. You all found some great possible maskils. Did any of you like what another group found better than what your group found? Raise your hand if yes.”

Hands went up all around the room. “Ah, just as I expected.  How interesting, don’t you think? But we’re almost out of time, so I think we can probably dismiss a bit early if there are no questions?”

One hand went up and Mr. Webster nodded her direction. “Yes Peggy?”

“Did any of us get the right answer, did we find the maskil?”

“Oh – in this case, there was no right answer. My personal question was how can I use this crab and shell to inspire thought and a search for meaning, value or beauty. I have my answer and think you do too. So, what do you all think?  Can I let you out a few minutes early?”

1478 words inspired by KL Caley’s #WritePhoto challenge
and her November 12 2022 prompt: Upsizing.

This story was very loosely based on an instructor I had in high school who, given the chance, would easily done this to our class. His name was Bill Webster and he taught an electronic class that changed my life. He remains one of my favorite instructors from the time.

GW bio card 4

12 thoughts on “The Search for a Maskil :: N2W 221112

  1. I just bought a “game” I saw on the internet for my grandnieces and nephews called OuiSi that is similar to this concept. I love games that are thought-provoking and encourage people, especially kids, to realize there is no box. I’ve never had to think outside the box because I’ve never seen the box! (Miss Taylor was my science teacher at PHS and I adored her.)


    1. Hi Deb, I’ve not heard of that game. Ones the provoke thought are still rare. Most are just plain silly and I have no attention span for them. Love your remark about not seeing the box. I may have to borrow that line myself. BTW – I was afraid of taking Ms. Taylor’s classes. I didn’t have that kind of confidence until my trade school days after high school.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. you learn somethign new everyday; never heard of a maskil before, though there was a a famous tennis commentator called Dan Maskil whose favourite saying, if there was a terrific shot was, ‘Oh, I say!’…


  3. I loved this one Gary…it just shows that there can be so many perspectives and they can all be right or have a semblance of truth to them. I’m going to read this one more.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a great post, Gary. I’d never heard of a Maskil before so that’s very interesting. I love how you captured how a teacher can inspire us. I had an English teacher in high school, who told us to read out a text with a specific accent so one day he would speak to us as a pirate we’d all have to read aloud as a pirate, the next it would be an Irish accent and so on and so forth. It was such a genius tactic in so many ways; we all focussed on how fun it was, instead of being self-conscious about reading aloud, and it made some parts of the text so memorable you could quote it line for line (usually in an odd accompanying accent) and it truly made what could otherwise be quite boring lessons come alive. I think you captured that kind of teaching magic in this piece. KL ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi KL,
      The real live Bill Webster was one of my favorite teachers. He loved teaching and loved working with us. He made every class a joy – but I bet he was clueless about maskils. This is what happens when authors read – we discover gems like this and use them.
      Thanks for reading my stories.
      You made my day 📚


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