Cipher in the Snow was written by Jean Mizer, an Idaho teacher, counselor and guidance director. It was first published in the NEA Journal, 50:8-10, 1964. It won first prize in the first Reader’s Digest/NEA Journal writing competition.
I described the impact Cipher has had on me in What Drives You? Then I decided to post the story here. In search of the author to get permission but the story is 47 years old. Hopefully Jean is still alive so I can offer a heartfelt thank you for making a difference in me.
Cipher in the Snow by Jean Mizer
It started with tragedy on a biting cold February morning. I was driving behind the Milford Corners bus as I did most snowy mornings on my way to school. It veered and stopped short at the hotel, which it had no business doing, and I was annoyed as I had come to an unexpected stop. A boy lurched out of the bus, reeled, stumbled, and collapsed on the snow bank at the curb. The bus driver and I reached him at the same moment. His thin, hollow face was white even against the snow.
“He’s dead,” the driver whispered.
It didn’t register for a minute. I glanced quickly at the scared young faces staring down at us from the school bus. “A doctor! Quick! I’ll phone from the hotel.”
“No use. I tell you he’s dead.” The driver looked down at the boy’s still form. “He never even said he felt bad,” he muttered, “just tapped me on the shoulder and said, real quiet, ‘I’m sorry. I have to get off at the hotel.’ That’s all. Polite and apologizing like.”
At school, the giggling, shuffling morning noise quieted as the news went down the halls. I passed a huddle of girls. “Who was it? Who dropped dead on the way to school?” I heard one of them half whisper.
“Don’t know his name; some kid from Milford Corners,” was the reply.
It was like that in the faculty room and the principal’s office. “I’d appreciate your going out to tell the parents” the principal told me. “They don’t have a phone and, anyway, somebody from school should go there in person. I’ll cover your classes.”
“Why me?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better if you did it?”
“I don’t know the boy,” the principal admitted levelly. “And in last year’s sophomore personalities column I note that you were listed as his favorite teacher.”
I drove through the snow and cold down the bad canyon road to the Evans place and thought about the boy, Cliff Evans. His favorite teacher! I thought. He hasn’t spoken two words to me in two years! I could see him in my mind’s eye all right, sitting back there in the last seat in my afternoon Literature class. He came in the room by himself and left by himself. “Cliff Evans” I muttered to myself, “a boy who never talked.” I thought a minute; “a boy who never smiled. I never saw him smile once.”
The big ranch kitchen was clean and warm. I blurted out my news somehow. Mrs. Evans reached blindly toward a chair. “He never said anything about hem’ ailing.”
His stepfather snorted. “He ain’t said nothin’ about anything since I moved in here.”
Mrs. Evans pushed a pan to the back of the stove and began to untie her apron. “Now hold on,” her husband snapped. “I got to have breakfast before I go to town. Nothin’ we can do now anyway. If Cliff hadn’t been so dumb, he’d have told us he didn’t feel good.”
After school I sat in the office and stared blankly at the records spread out before me. I was to close the file and write the obituary for the school paper. The almost bare sheets mocked the effort. Cliff Evans, white, never legally adopted by stepfather, five young half-brothers and sisters. These meager strands of information and the list of D grades were all the records had to offer.
Cliff Evans had silently come in the school door in the mornings and gone out the school door in the evenings, and that was all. He had never belonged to a club. He had never played on a team. He had never held an office. As far as I could tell, he had never done one happy, noisy kid thing. He had never been anybody at all.
How do you go about making a boy into a zero? The grade-school records showed me. The first and second grade teachers’ annotations read “sweet, shy child;” “timid but eager.” Then the third grade note had opened the attack. Some teacher had written in a good firm, hand: “Cliff won’t talk. Uncooperative. Slow learner.” The other academic sheet had followed with “dull”, “slow-witted;” “low IQ”. They became correct. The boy’s IQ score in the ninth grade was listed at 83. But his IQ in the third grade had been 196. The score didn’t go under 100 until seventh grade. Even shy, timid, sweet children have resilience. It takes time to break them.
I stomped to the typewriter and wrote a savage report pointing out what education had done to Cliff Evans. I slapped a copy on the principal’s desk and another in the sad, dog-eared file. I banged the typewriter and slammed the file and crashed the door shut, but I didn’t feel much better. A little boy kept walking after me, a little boy with a peaked, pale face; a skinny body in faded jeans; and big eyes that had looked and searched for a long time and then had become veiled.
I could guess how many times he’d been chosen last to play sides in a game; how many whispered child conversations had excluded him; how many times he hadn’t been asked. I could see and hear the faces and voices that said over and over, “You’re a nothing, Cliff Evans.”
A child is a believing creature. Cliff undoubtedly believed them. Suddenly it seemed clear to me: When finally there was nothing left at all for Cliff Evans, he collapsed on a snow bank and went away. The doctor might list “heart failure” as the cause of death, but that wouldn’t change my mind.
We couldn’t find ten students in the school who had known Cliff well enough to attend the funeral as his friends. So the student body officers and a committee from the junior class went as a group to the church, being politely sad. I attended the services with them, and sat through it with a lump of cold lead in my chest and a big resolve growing through me.
I’ve never forgotten Cliff Evans nor that resolve. He has been my challenge year after year, class after class. I look up and down the rows carefully each September at the unfamiliar faces. I look for veiled eyes or bodies scrounged into a seat in an alien world. “Look, kids” I say silently, “I may not do anything else for you this year, but not one of you is going to come out of here a nobody. I’ll work or fight to the bitter end doing battle with society and the school board, but I won’t have one of you coming out of here thinking himself into a zero.”
Most of the time—not always, but most of the time—I’ve succeeded.