Thursday, April 24, 2014

U: Unseen--Revisiting "Cipher in the Snow" #AtoZChallenge

Cipher: noun. 1. Something of no value; 2. A person of no influence, nonentity.

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. 
Cipher in the Snow made a real impression on me. Like Frank, I vowed early on, before I started teaching, not to treat any child like a cipher. In that effort, I suspect I have failed. 

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?


  1. Hi Glenda - another teacher here. I know what you mean - we care passionately about the children that we teach and try to help not just within the educational sphere but this is now what everybody thinks we should do as the norm - where are the parents and the rest of society in all of this? Maybe we should have the post of "Unsung Hero" as our teacher post for today's challenge?

  2. It is hard to give each the attention they deserve. The fact that you try makes you a hero in my eyes.

    Brandon Ax: Writer's Storm

    1. Thanks, Brandon. One of the hardest things to deal w/ is the reality that what works for one kid doesn't necessarily work for the next one. We're close to the point where every kid needs an IEP.

  3. Good post. My oldest sister was an English teacher before her retirement, and my husband has worked in a school for almost three decades. Teachers are always heroes to us, because they are putting so much into shaping the next generation. It is sad that a lot of parents don't do as they should, but thank God that for the children with less than attentive parents, there are teachers out there who can still make a difference in a lonely child's life. If that isn't a hero, I don't know what is.