Growing Up in the 70s: Cipher in the Snow

My friend Jim and I are going to see Rush in concert in September. That’s been a lifelong dream of mine (yes, I’m a man of big dreams). In tribute to all the wonderful aspects of coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, I’m going to run an occasional series on some of the cultural touchstones for those of us who are proudly GenX.

First, a movie that was shown every year in my elementary school. It’s called Cipher in the Snow. It’s from 1974. The plot is basically this: A kid can’t get a seat on the bus, so he asks to get off, whereupon he dies in a snowbank. Cause of death: no one was nice to him.

Watch it below, in two parts, and tell me if you can believe that they showed this to 3rd graders.

  • Phil Miller

    The soundtrack makes me want to throw myself in a snowbank…

  • Erin
  • Kent

    Holy Moly, I remember watching this in Elementary school, too! Probably 3rd or 4th grade. I was just thinking about this a few months ago and was trying to remember the name. All I could come up with was “Zilch in the Snow,” but I was pretty sure that wasn’t quite right. I’m going to watch this now!

  • Scott Gay

    So basically the idea was to guilt you into being nice? Guilting is a self serving thing. I’m guessing less conflict in school, on the playground, and bus is the hoped for result. When does anyone here think we will confront what Rene Girard has postulated as the real reasons for conflict?

    • Evelyn

      I’m not sure that the emotion was guilt. It seemed that the math teacher changed his awareness of the importance of being supportive after the kid’s death and applied it.

      I think people have different responses to premature death that may or may not be guilt related. I had a couple of friends die in a span of two years between the ages of 17 and 19 and the my response was to try to make my life that much more meaningful because they had lost theirs. I don’t think I felt guilty. I think it was either a running away from the fact that they had died or trying to compensate for it in some way. It wasn’t until my mid thirties that I realized that there was nothing I could do about it and I wasn’t responsible for ameliorating it and that, in fact, I couldn’t.

  • Patrick

    I watched it with Tony as a kid and will not be viewing it again. It was Scared Straight for 1st graders and has always stuck with me.

  • Eli

    Tony, if you do not take earplugs with you to see Rush, you will regret it. They are either deaf themselves, or they hire deaf sound men.

    Don’t get me wrong, it will be an incredible show, but your ears will bleed.

  • Evelyn

    There’s a little girl on the bus in the first video at around 1:33 with devil horns on her head. I think she killed him.

    Why were they showing this video to the kids. It seems more appropriate for the teachers.

  • Scott

    I remember seeing that show a number of times. I think I saw it several times in school and several times in church. Even at the time as a kid, I found it a manipulative piece of propaganda–a bit like those anti-drugs shows where they show people taking drugs for the first time and instantly going crazy, having harmful things happen, jumping out windows, etc. (Go watch Reefer Madness, which is funny and the earlier decades version of this, too.) The problem with these kinds of shows is that most kids are not as utterly stupid as most adults assume they are. They know that taking drugs once doesn’t usually make you freak out and instantly jump out a window or not being nice makes a kid fall out of the bus and randomly die.

    I guess it’s good to make kids aware of the problems, but my reaction (and the same of a lot of people I knew) was to throw the baby out with the bathwater. When kids know you’re lying and trying to manipulate them, they just ignore the whole thing. They figure the whole thing is a big lie to get them to behave. You know, “the boy who cried wolf” or in this case “the adults who cry wolf” to try to get the kids to behave better. Nothing made adults lose credibility faster with me than when I knew I was being obviously lied to and manipulated.

    I didn’t know they showed it anywhere outside of Utah. It was a special favorite there since it came out of the BYU, so was one of the few local productions aside from the Donny and Marie show. I guess it was based on some 1960s short story in an NEA magazine (according to Wikipedia). It has the weepy/tragic bit, that people in the 1970s seemed to love, too. A perfect show for the time period.

    You have to feel bad about the cipher, Cliff Evans, but at the same time every little bit of the show is so blatantly calculated to make him pathetic. The poem about frogs, the abusive stepfather, the “picking pussywillows,” the favorite teacher who doesn’t know the kid even exists. So sad and so over-earnest.

    It’s actually a fairly corny show, but it doesn’t turn out to be very funny because the whole thing is so depressing.


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