Public-service bullying / Relentless wind

A blurry image of a boy falling face-first into the snow. The title reads “Cipher in the Snow” in a seventies style font
Screenshot: YouTube

Today: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, writer, editor, and author of the forthcoming book Vaquera; and Luke O'Neil, author of the story collection A Creature Wanting Form and the newsletter, Welcome to Hell World.

Issue No. 63

Cipher In The Snow
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

The Song You Wanted It To Be
Luke O’Neil

Cipher In The Snow

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

I attended high school in an era when Wyoming public schools were still showing outdated instructional films from the 1970s, which I guess is one way of interpreting what Eddie Vedder said about defending ourselves from that shit. In driver’s ed class, when I was 15, my instructor showed us endless slides of the absolutely horrific outcomes of road accidents that occurred when a person drove drunk, or failed to signal, or—especially pertinent to us in Wyoming—slammed on the brakes when they saw a horse in the road, rather than swerving or, more daringly, speeding up so it might roll over the car. The latter picture in particular is one I cannot forget, burnished in oversaturated 1960s photo-developer hues, a red fin-tailed Chevy with the horse, upside down and quite dead, on the hood. You had to look closely to find the horse's face, but it had gone through the windshield and smashed into the driver, who was now just a headless body, his blood color-coordinated with his vehicle-now-crypt. Scare tactics, I suppose, were still imagined to be a good deterrent in the early 1990s, and I’ll tell you what—I certainly learned to be a “defensive driver.”

More traumatic than the gory car-accident photos, though, was “Cipher in the Snow,” a short film I was made to watch in elementary school. Released in 1974 and based on a story written by Idaho teacher Jean Mizer Todhunter for the NEA Journal, “Cipher in the Snow” is the anti-bullying film to end all anti-bullying films. It’s about a white teenage boy named Cliff who steps off his yellow school bus and drops dead on the side of the road. That’s the opening scene; for the remaining 20 minutes,  a math instructor investigates Cliff’s life for an obituary in the school newspaper, an assignment bestowed upon him by the principal, who also tells him to inform Cliff’s parents of their son’s death. (The principal can’t do it himself because he has to attend a “board meeting.”)

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