I was the troublemaker in school. You know; there was always that one kid in class who never took any lesson seriously, who vandalized the classroom whenever the teacher wasn’t there, who talked nonstop, despite the teacher’s constant empty threats; that was me. I was very familiar with the principal by 3rd grade, whom I visited an average of 9 times per school week. My grades were low, as to be expected, but back then I didn’t care. When I say “back then”, I’m referring to my elementary school years, which were from 1997-2000. Which is also where my story begins. I remember my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Darvin, who had recently suffered a divorce, and I took advantage of her at any moment I could. I would fail a test and she would always give me sympathy points; I would throw an eraser at one of the girls and I would be dismissed with a soft “Stop, please”. I recall with disdain my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Garrett, who would lower my grade by 10 percent every time I answered a question incorrectly in class.
And then there was Miss Valerie, my 5th grade teacher.
Miss Valerie was different from all the other teachers. Whereas everyone else saw me as a lost cause, she looked upon me with favor and affection. She would meet with me after class and review the material with me, until she had made sure I understood it. She tutored me on weekends. She motivated me to actually get work done. As you’ve probably already guessed, my parents were rarely there for me, and she quickly became a mother figure.
I just wish I’d shown it.
If anything, I was a worse student to Valerie than I was to Darvin or Garrett. I needed attention more than anything, and I think that, deep down, she knew it, even as I talked out loud to my clique during class, even as I refused to turn in my assignments, even as I took 15-minute “bathroom” trips every day.
I always felt guilty every time she reluctantly sent me down to the principal’s office for detention, even though I wasn’t conscious of it.
And then, all of that changed.
I think that most of you know what I’m talking about when I say that I especially hated those 20-year-old educational films. You know, the healthy eating and drug prevention campaigns that the school dropped on us for 1 month out of the year. Remember D.A.R.E.? Yeah, that stuff.
And the anti-bullying campaign. Jesus, that was torture. We spent the entirety of Fridays learning about how to stand up to bullies, how to not become a bully, how to speak up when you’re a bystander. Of course, I never paid attention to any of it. They all consisted of grainy, low-quality scenes of people who were clearly on antidepressants talking about the problem of bullies in schools. They all had cheesy titles, too. “Don’t Stand By for Bullying!”, “Take Bullying By the Horns!”. I fell asleep during each and every one of them.
I clearly remember that one March afternoon, when Miss Valerie showed us a video, simply entitled, “The Zebra”. She inserted the tape into the VCR and told us that we should pay attention, because the message was very important. She dimmed the lights and flipped on the TV. I wasn’t awake for most of it, but what I did see was a bit confusing.
It started with a cartoon scene of Africa, with no title sequence or anything. A poorly-drawn zebra moved into view, coming across a pack of lions, encircling an antelope. That’s all I saw before I rolled my eyes, leaned back in my chair, and fell asleep.
I was awakened by the voice of Valerie, saying, “And that’s why you shouldn’t be a zebra. Any questions?” No one had any, but from what I’d heard at lunch that day, nobody fully understood it. Apparently, the zebra was supposed to represent a bystander, the lions were bullies, and the antelope was a victim. The plot was that the zebra watched as the lions devoured the antelope, and didn’t speak up to stop it. I couldn’t have cared less about the message, but as the day went on, I became worried. Kids were dancing around the halls, singing happily, “We’re not zebras! We’re not zebras!” When I threw erasers at the girls, they didn’t react. It would hit their faces and bounce off with a slap, but they just remained unflinching, still singing “We’re not zebras!” happily. It was strange, to say the least.
Before I left school, I met with Valerie for the usual review session. As I sat down in front of her desk, she asked me why I hadn’t been watching the film.
My answer was standard. “I didn’t care.” Upon hearing this, she sighed heavily.
“You know, Luke,” she said, “I was once a lot like you. I would constantly cause trouble in class, and would even bully other students.”
That was when it wasn’t criminal to be one, I thought.
“I often picked on this one, very emotionally fragile little girl. I said the meanest things to her, awful things. I laughed as I watched her cry. She even stayed home for weeks at a time. One day, I got a call that the student I’d been harassing had killed herself by jumping from a window."
I was too young to understand the gravity of this admission.
"That moment made me realize that the path I’d chosen was wrong and hurtful. I found out later that she had left me a gift- this video.” She held up a copy of “The Zebra”. “I never understood why, but I kept it knowing that changing would make her proud. And I say the same to you, today.” She put away the tape and looked into my eyes. “Now, go.”
She hadn’t assigned anything to the class that day, and I assumed she would give me at least one extra credit paper.
“You’re not giving me homework?” I questioned.
“No. You can go home. I just wanted to tell you how I feel about your potential future,” she said. I shrugged and left, seriously confused at the day’s events.
The next day, when I came to school, the entire class was empty. I sat down in my usual desk at the front of the room, looking at the absent desks around me. Seeing that nobody was there, I stood up and turned on the TV Valerie had kept for PSA videos. The default channel was the local news.
BREAKING NEWS: 17 CHILDREN DEAD; CAUSE UNKNOWN
I stared at the screen intently, not quite knowing what to think.
“Seventeen children were found dead this morning, all outside their own homes,” said a reporter. “The deaths were discovered by a paper boy, who insisted on remaining anonymous, who claimed that he found several of them dead, lying on the ground below open windows on his morning route. Never before since the town was founded has there been such a tragic occurrence. The deaths were likely coordinated, although whether the intentions were homicidal or suicidal is still unknown. Police are currently investigating the incident.”
Shocked, I stood up and turned around, to find Miss Valerie standing in the doorway.
“You see why it’s so important not to be a zebra, now?” she said, grinning. “Of course you don’t.” She walked towards me. “You..are special.”
She strolled over to her desk and took out “The Zebra”.
“These children have all stood up to the lions, and in doing so, they are no longer zebras. The antelope can be saved.”
She handed me the tape. I grasped it with both hands, as if it were made of glass. Despite being left in the cold metal drawer, it felt warm, as if it had been lying on top of a heater. There was something else strange about it, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
“The antelope was killed long ago by the lion. The zebras never batted an eye.
“But, now, both the lion and the zebras have a chance to redeem themselves. The antelope; she chose me to spread the message of this video. Only a lion possesses enough strength to persuade the horde of zebras.
“Now it’s your turn.”
Before I could speak, Miss Valerie unsheathed a knife from her pocket and swiped it across her throat, falling over her desk in a heap.
I've never screamed as hard as I did that day.
Within minutes, the police stormed into the classroom, looking for Miss Valerie. They found me crying next to her lifeless body, still clutching the tape. I couldn't understand what was happening. I still don't fully understand, if I'm honest.
They told me she was a “bad person”, and that she was “very sad”. But as they confiscated the tape, I overheard them saying, “... a known cultist... killed all 17... convinced somehow...”
After they calmed me down, I remember handing them the tape, saying that I wanted it back after they were done with it.
Apparently that's not how it actually happened. An officer later told me that they had to pry it from me, and that I kept repeating one phrase, over and over:
"I want to be a zebra."
The case was concluded in late 2005, with the deaths confirmed as a mass suicide, induced by Miss Valerie, who had a history of killing entire classes of children.
Following its closing, the tape was returned to my possession, with the police officers claiming that it contained nothing of evidential interest. I knew that something about what was on it caused the deaths of my classmates. I had my theories: brainwashing, hypnosis, subliminal messaging. But I kept them to myself. I don't know why.
I remember me taking it from them, feeling its familiar warmth, as if I was holding hands with an old friend. But I could never bring myself to rewatch it. There was something about it, something wrong. My therapist told me it was simply a connection to the traumatic event. I stopped going to his appointments years ago.
At some point I threw it in a desk drawer, and it gathered dust there for 12 years.
March 25th. The anniversary.
I was spring cleaning, and I tipped over the desk and there it was.
I was tempted to pick it up and throw it into the furnace, but I restrained myself. I slowly leaned over and lifted it off the floor, brushing it off.
I expected the label to be faded or worn, but it was eerily pristine. Not so much as a tear or crease. I could still see the words printed on it, appearing as though they were new:
Studio 58 Productions presents: "The Zebra", an anti-bullying educational film
And then I realized something.
That one thing I could never place when Miss Valerie had first given me the cassette. That one thing that had deterred me from watching it one more time.
It was light. Too light for a cassette.
The tape did not have, nor had it ever had, any film.