When I attended college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I watched a low-budget movie called Cipher in the Snow in one of my education classes. The plot is simple: A boy named Cliff gets on the school bus, can't find a seat, asks to get off the bus, and drops to the ground dead.
Cliff is a child unseen. He's a cipher, a kid with no value, no influence, a nonentity.
The film flashes back to earlier moments of Cliff's life as Frank, Cliff's favorite teacher, investigates the child's record so that he can compose Cliff's obituary. Frank, a math teacher, doesn't remember the boy. At one point Frank says, "From the record, Cliff was a real zero, a cipher."
Every epithet the system can conjure up sticks to Cliff: "slow, dumb." Frank and a secretary have a conversation about teachers labeling children and these labels becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Cliff's third grade teacher says, "You know you're the slowest one in the class."
Frank later observes: "People seem to live up to what other people think of them."
"I think Cliff was erased little by little...Everyone reduced him to a zero," says Frank after the autopsy report concludes that Cliff had no medical condition that can account for his death.
When I watched Cipher in the Snow the first time, my idealist self didn't understand the real significance of this short film. I took it as a cautionary tale of the importance of seeing each child, of remembering that each child is a son or daughter, of treating each child with humanity and dignity, of setting high expectations for each child.
Forty years after its making, I now see the sinister subtext of Cipher in the Snow: A kid feels marginalized? Blame a teacher. A child fails in school? Must be a teacher's fault. Teachers label students unjustifiably. We don't help students enough with their personal problems, with their stress, etc., etc.
Sure the film also mention's Cliff's evil stepfather and compliant mother. Yet the teachers who fail Cliff are the real focus of the film.
Why does this matter? Simply, Cipher in the Snow and it's blame teachers theme has succeeded magnanimously. Ask a teacher. Listen to the rhetoric of pseudo-ed reformers such as Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates.
Teachers are the new ciphers. When will someone make a movie about us?