2. Z IS FOR ZOMBIE
There were times when I used to dream of having my name on that billboard.
I would imagine myself pulling into the parking lot and seeing the letters arranged oh-so-carefully. I’d open my door, stand up proudly, and stride jauntily inside. People would see me and smile, offering congratulations, handshakes, and even the occasional hug. I would nod regally, solemnly, only showing the slightest smile and hesitant blush as I nodded my thanks over and over again. I’d have a badge, too, or some other sign signifying my new status: Teacher of the Year.
You see, ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was always the teacher’s pet growing up, offering to help carry boxes or clean boards or watch the class. I’d be on my best behavior so the teacher would reward me with Line Leader or extra pins from the jar that added up to the most amazing sticker collection. Occasionally I would be called upon to inform the teacher of another student’s unacceptable behavior, and though that certainly made it hard at times to keep friends, it absolutely endeared me to my teachers. And after all, who was I really trying to impress? Shallow, narrow-minded girls who loved wearing pink and collecting dolls? Most definitely not. Instead, it was the person who stood at the head of the class and kept us all organized, quiet, and learning.
I suppose that’s why in some ways, elementary school was a breeze. The adoration of the teachers and other adults around me made it easier to bear the mean attitudes of the other kids. Not that I didn’t have friends. I just wasn’t Ms. Popular, which was fine by me, since that girl only talked about nail polish, hair clips, and boys – and that was at age six! My friends and I were the ones who preferred to sit in the front of the room and bring apples for our teachers.
Now, it may seem strange to you that I remember kindergarten so clearly. For many people, that age is more of a fuzzy blur than the formative middle or high school years. But something about that year stuck with me, enough to remain memorable after all these years.
I think a big part of it was because learning the A-B-Cs was so amazing for me. I used to go home and practice my letters over and over. I’d repeat “A is for Apple, B is for banana, C is for cherry,” and the rest of the alphabet all the way to Z. “Z is for zebra,” I’d tell my mother very solemnly, proud of myself for making it through the entire list. She would always reward me with a fresh baked cookie, and I’d happily go back to my room where I’d draw my version of an apple, banana, cherry, and all the rest. By the end of kindergarten, my entire room, including the ceiling, was covered with my drawings.
When we graduated at the end of the year, not only did I get on the Honor roll for both attendance and grades, I also got a special award as Best Student of the Year. It came with a shiny medal that hung around my neck.
Kindergarten really was the best grade ever.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the rest of my school years. Middle school was awkward, sure, but I had the same few friends so we were all awkward together. And the teachers still responded to apples and sitting in the front of the class. High school, though, was a bit harder. The teachers were always stressed out and tired. They were always rushing to meetings when they weren’t in class, or taking workshops so they could be better at balancing their time in order to be able to get to all the meetings. This meant that apples didn’t have the staying power they used to when I was younger.
I was really glad to finally get to college. I took a special four-year course that allowed me to graduate with my degree in Elementary Education along with my Teacher Certification. That’s how I was able to start teaching right at twenty-two. Where? At the same elementary school I first attended as a little girl. In fact, I was able to replace my old kindergarten teacher, who had just retired the previous year.
Now I was the one getting apples. I was the one the little boys and girls would run to for hugs or more crayons. I was the one who decided who was Line Leader and who was Helper of the Day. I was the one who called out “A is for?” and waited for a response. “Apple!” they’d shout, and I would nod with pride.
It was simply bliss.
Perhaps my life might’ve gone on uninterrupted, class after class of kindergarten kids, year after year. If I hadn’t gone out that night. If I hadn’t been so upset. If I hadn’t stopped caring about myself for those few moments.
It was the end of the school year, and I was absolutely certain that, at long last, I was going to finally win Teacher of the Year, especially as I had spent my entire career honing my excellent teaching record. As the principal starting calling out awards for different areas – Best Attendance, Best Grades, Best Class Spirit, Best Fundraiser, Best Behaved, Best Door Decoration – I straightened my back and pushed back my shoulders. It was my time.
When I won for Best Class Spirit, Best Grades, Best Fundraiser, and Best Door Decoration, I thought for sure the trophy was mine. I smiled sunnily at the other teachers congratulating me, even the ones clapping politely who thought they’d win instead. Hadn’t I worked for those awards?
Then the moment came.
Principal Dale-Grene picked up the Teacher of the Year statue and turned back to face us, his eyes smiling.
“My fellow teachers, you all know it takes endurance, optimism, and tenacity to be a successful teacher. This award represents the teacher who most exemplified these qualities this past school year and has unfailingly contributed to the overall success of our school. I am proud to present our Teacher of the Year award to… Stacey Medcalf!”
I stood up, a smile pasted on my face, and walked several feet forward before Ms. Janet, one of my teacher friends, grabbed my arm and pulled me back. Confused, I tried to remove my arm from her grasp.
“What are you doing?” she whispered. “They called Stacey. Stacey!”
The name finally penetrated my brain. I’d been so certain I was going to win that I’d heard what I wanted to hear.
Completely embarrassed, I looked around and saw several teachers looking at me strangely.
“Come here and sit down,” Ms. Janet commanded, dragging me back to a spot in the back.
“I mean, seriously, you’re name doesn’t even sound like Stacey.”
She was so right. I felt even more ashamed.
But just for a moment.
Because after I took a deep breath, pasted a fake smile on my face, and started clapping with everyone else as Ms. Stacey Medcalf took photos on the cafetorium stage, rage started pouring through me.
I’d won four of the top awards for the year! I was a shoe-in. What had happened?
Somehow I made it through the rest of the ceremony, ignoring the looks the other teachers threw at me when I forced myself to join the line of people standing to congratulate Ms. Stacey Medcalf. I was gracious, kind, and patient, just the way a kindergarten teacher is supposed to be. I would not throw a fit.
After congratulating her, though, I made a beeline for the principal. We needed to have some words between us.
“Excuse me, Principal Dale-Grene, can I just have a teensy quick word with you?” I asked with a bright smile on my face.
He glanced at me, suspicious, before sighing and taking off his glasses. He pretended to clean them for a moment before placing them back on his face and looking down at me.
“Look, I know you’re upset about the Teacher of the Year award.”
“What are you talking about? Upset? Please. It went to the most deserving, right?”
My voice went up pretty high at the end there, causing Principal Dale-Grene to wince. I cleared my throat, trying to ease the tightness in it. I would not cry.
“I mean, I only won four of the top awards, so it’s not like I was in the front-running or anything,” I continued, my voice a few octaves lower but still strained.
“Look, you did great work all year. We both know that. But your record for attendance and behavior problems has been a bit faulty.”
“A bit faulty?”
“You’ve had the worst-behaving class in kindergarten for the past three years. This year, your attendance also slipped to last place.”
He reached out to pat my shoulder. It took everything in me not to punch him in the face.
“I’m sorry. You and I both know that high attendance and great behavior are the two most essential qualities for Teacher of the Year.”
“So the best test grades and… and décor aren’t equally important?”
He patted my shoulder again.
“Be honest with yourself. You know that being in school is the first step to learning, followed by an attitude that is receptive to learning. You’re class was lacking in those areas, which is why this year was such an upwards battle for you.”
Tears started clawing their way out of my eyes.
“Don’t take it so hard. There’s always next year. So go and enjoy your summer. Take a break. You definitely earned it.”
With a final pat, Principal Dale-Grene turned away and rejoined the crowd. Completely dejected, I made a hurried exit out of the side door and ran to my car. But once there, I finally broke down and let the tears come. I might’ve stayed there all night had not Ms. Janet found me. She knocked on my car window gently, asking me to roll it down. Though I just wanted to yell at her to go away, I knew I couldn’t resort to the same bad behavior as my students. So I rolled down the window and tried to muffle my sobs.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I replied, my voice again unnaturally high.
“Yeah, right. Look, I know you’re upset and it feels like the end of the world to you, but it’s really not.”
“But you know… I’ve been talking about it… since last year.”
“Yeah. And it didn’t work out this time. But there is always next year.”
“Okay. Look, how about we go get a drink, huh? Something to relax you a little bit.”
I thought about it. Normally, I was a light drinker, preferring juice boxes and chocolate milk, but something stronger sounded appealing right then and there.
So I climbed out of my car and got into hers (since she insisted on driving) so we could carpool.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just drive and see what catches our attention.”
We drove a couple of miles down the highway, but I vetoed all the big places. I wasn’t up to a big crowd. Just a small place with a few tables and dark corners. Some place I could mope and not get weird looks. I was dressed, after all, in my kinder best – school polo, ironed jeans, and white tennis shoes. Ms. Janet was wearing a similar outfit, but I had on way more makeup, so I thought my face was probably blotchy and streaked with black eyeliner. Not that it mattered. A tiny dive bar where I could hold my head up with shattered pride was just about right for me.
“Why don’t we just drive around a neighborhood and see what we find?” I suggested.
“Yes, it seems as if all the ones along the highway are the big ones.”
She turned off promptly at the next exit and proceeded to turn down the first street we came to. About a mile later, I spotted a dingy-looking building with a few cars out front. It simply read “Bar” on the sign.
“That one,” I pointed out.
Ms. Janet glanced at me doubtfully.
Normally, I’d never have given the place a second glance, especially if I’d been alone. But there weren’t many cars, it was still daylight, and I was in a strange mood.
“Yes. Why not?”
The bar was exactly what I expected. Despite the anti-smoking laws inside public buildings, the placed reeked of cigarettes, a slight haze indicating that someone has recently been in there lighting up. I took a deep breath and started coughing. Ms. Janet turned to me, alarmed, but I waved her away.
“Just… got… ahead… of myself.”
She turned away and led us to a tiny two-seater table in the corner. It was, just as I’d imagined, dark. And it smelled like spilled beer. But no one had given us a second glance, just as I’d wanted. At least something was going the way I expected.
Pretty soon we were both enjoying our first round of the special, appropriately titled ‘Bar’s Special’. That first round turned into two, then a third and fourth just for me. By that time, I was telling my story to the entire bar.
“It’s not like I didn’t try. But when they give me all the worst kids in the grade, what do they expect? I’m a teacher, not a miracle worker. But silly me, guess I thought they believed in my… my teaching… teacher awesomeness… teach… whatever. I thought they trusted my ability… to take the… the bad ones. And I did. With a big ‘ole kindergarten smile on my face. All year long, I keep that smile on. And how do they reward me? How?! By giving Ms. Stacey Medcalf my award! Mine!”
By that point, I was standing on the bar, swaying with the force of my indignation. The bouncer guy came and pulled me down, gesturing to Ms. Janet to come and get me.
“I’m sorry, officer. It’s just been… a terrible day!”
I burst out crying. Fortunately, Ms. Janet rescued him by taking me by the arm and leading me back to the car. She got me in and buckled up, while I tried to apologize.
“Sor… sorry. You’re a good… good friend, Ms. Janet.”
“Why do you call me Ms. Janet. We’re out of school. Let me be just Janet.”
Her harsh tone pulled me out of my self-absorption.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“Listen, I know it’s been a hard day and all, but try and remember you’re not the only teacher out there who’s had a rough year. I don’t want to be Ms. Janet over the summer. I’m a person!”
Maybe the special had gotten to her, too. Shame washed through me, quickly followed by the desire to be alone.
“Maybe I should just call a cab.”
“Maybe you should.”
Ouch. She was upset.
So Ms. Janet – Janet – waited while I pulled out my phone and called a taxi. When I got off, I looked up to see her smoking a cigarette by the front of her car. I thought I would be shocked, but at that point, everything made perfect sense.
I dragged myself out of the car and over to Ms… to Janet.
“The cab people said it would be about twenty minutes. You don’t have to wait.”
“Listen, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I didn’t mean… must be the drinks, right? That special was pretty strong.”
“It’s okay. I know I can be… anyway, you don’t need to wait.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
“No, seriously, I think I’ll just wait inside.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes ma’am. I mean, Janet. I mean… yeah.”
Janet gave me a quick hug then turned to get into her car. I walked towards the door of the bar, giving her a quick wave as she drove off. But as soon as she passed out of sight, I stopped. I felt restless. Unwilling to try and actually talk to anyone, I decided to go explore the neighborhood. On a normal day, without the twin influences of both my disappointing day and the Bar’s Special, I would never have gone walking alone at night in a strange part of the city. But again, in my mood, I just thought, why not?
Well, as you probably figured out, the inevitable happened. Passed a park, got run over, bitten, and left to die. Which I did. That’s how the whole zombie transformation goes.
When I woke up, or revived I guess, I was a newbie zombie. I didn’t know that right away, but I did feel an urge to find Ms. Stacey Medcalf and dig into her brains to see what made her so special. I lurched off, angry and hungry, singing the A-B-C song to myself in my head.
I hadn’t even crossed the park before some guy came up to me.
“Hey baby, you look like you had a rough night.”
“Baby? I’m not in kinder anymore, buddy?”
B is for brains, I thought to myself as I enjoyed my first meal as one of the walking dead.
I spent about a week out, roaming around, attacking anyone who looked like a certain kindergarten teacher. Or anyone who talked down to me. I mean, not being able to talk didn’t mean I was stupid.
But sure enough, word got out about a kinder-teacher-eating zombie, and before I knew it, the RZA swooped me up and took me to their headquarters for training. Or at least, Dr. Beth thought I was reform-capable since I was picky with my meals.
Happily, the physical aspects of reform training were fairly easy. Even the grueling mouth exercises for pronunciation weren’t that bad. After all, I was quite used to repetition and over-enunciation with my students. In fact, re-learning to speak the alphabet took little less than a day because my years of practicing it over and over – both as a child and adult – ingrained it deeply into my facial muscle memory. And writing in large block letters on a board had always been my forte.
But on the psychological side – oh, there I definitely struggled. I kept losing my temper, which meant my self-control, whenever I saw people who reminded me of my former co-workers. Which is why Dr. Beth sent me to see Dr. Tina.
“It appears as if your subconscious has a deep-rooted aversion to people who remind you of your past failures. Even more importantly, these failures reach far back into your childhood, which is why, despite losing most of your higher brain functions, your instinctive negative reactions remain directed towards anyone even superficially similar to those who hurt you. As a matter of fact, becoming a zombie most likely freed that suppressed rage in you, giving you the opportunity to act upon it.”
Her words made so much sense. Too much. All this time, I thought I was a nice, cheerful, good person, but it took turning into a zombie to realize I was just as angry and petty as everyone else.
“That sounds… really… bad. What do… I do?”
She scribbled a few notes before continuing.
“I believe – Kinder Z, is it?”
“Yes. That’s… my new name.”
“Excellent. I believe, Kinder Z, that the most viable treatment will keep you here at the RZA for a longer amount of time than is usual for most zombies.”
“Because what you really need the most is to get all of that suppressed rage out of you. The RZA can provide a safe and nurturing environment for you to do that.”
“You mean… I get to… attack any… human who.. triggers my… suppressed rage?”
She smiled thinly.
“No. But you will be allowed to rage and scream and vent all you like in a padded room provided for you.”
“Oh. I see. Um… Are you sure… this is the… only way?”
She took a deep breath and leaned back into her chair.
“There are other methods, of course. These would involve much more sacrifice on your part, and in the end, you may end up less yourself than you might become by simply allowing yourself to flush out these negative emotions. If it helps, remember that the RZA is dedicated to facilitating your transition into the best possible reformed zombie, one that allows you to remain true to your great passions in life.”
I laughed hollowly.
“I don’t think… they’ll ever… let me back… into a room full… of five-year-olds.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Her voice turned brisk.
“In the meantime, perhaps you might be of some assistance here, something that would allow your extended stay to appear less onerous.”
“Sure, but… I’m not good… at much except… teaching very basic… concepts to… simple minds.”
“And that’s exactly what we’re asking. Dr. Beth and I have been overwhelmed by the recent influx of zombies. It would be most helpful if you would consent to help us teach newbie zombies the, er, basics as you say. Your students would be, most distinctly, the simplest minds.”
Offered another chance to teach? How could I refuse?
“Yes… I will… teach.”
That’s how I came to find myself in front of a blackboard at the RZA, teaching basic writing skills. The repetition required might’ve been tedious for other people, but laboriously redrawing the A-B-Cs in large letters was as close as I came to the feel of my kindergarten classroom. The progress of my pupils was slow, which also helped, so I was mostly content.
Except when I lost it.
Dr. Tina encouraged me to express my anger as often as I wanted, and in fact scheduled daily “rage sessions” for me to vent. This was usually after she had shown me pictures or short movie clips of people resembling not just Ms. Stacey Medcalf, but every other boy and girl who’d ever slighted me, who’d ever made fun of me for adoring the alphabet and crayons and apples, for daring to strive to be the teacher’s pet. For color coordinating my closet and loving plastic organizers.
In that padded room I grew to love, I screamed as loud as I wanted. I tore up dolls dressed as humans, chewed through brain-shaped pillows, and beat against the walls until I was too exhausted to move. I became the truest sort of zombie, mindless and angry and hungry.
Weeks passed as I indulged myself for hours every day after class. Dr. Tina never said a word, but I thought I sensed her dismay when all my raging didn’t seem to dent the anger I had inside. I began to doubt the process.
Yet she didn’t give up.
“It built for years and years inside you. It will likely take several months to purge yourself completely. Only then will you be fully reformed. Don’t not be afraid of time.”
Time. She offered me as much as I needed. So I dug in and let the rage… rage on. But suddenly, only a few weeks after that, my wrath was just… gone.
Dr. Tina came to my padded room for our rage session, but when she showed me photos, nothing stirred in me. Oh don’t get me wrong. I’m a zombie. I’m always battling my rampant hunger, but the anger at all the injustices I’d experienced was gone. Depleted. I no longer cared about Ms. Stacey Medcalf. I just wanted to teach.
And that’s when I really regained absolute control.
Which led to my desire to return to my school and teach there again.
I know, on that surface, being a kindergarten teacher and being a zombie sound like completely opposing ideas. I get that. Easy prey, locked room, behavior management techniques, intimidation… A recipe for disaster, you might think.
But think again. Zombies move slowly, and they have to learn to understand what they can and cannot do. Even better, zombies talk very slowly, and have you ever listened to a kindergarten teacher talking to her class? It takes forever to get through the alphabet (except for that one kid who always rushes through everything). And there’s a lot of repetition, not just of letters. So there’s a lot of practicing the same things over and over – just like zombies have to do when working on regaining speech and motor control abilities.
Then there are the basics of every kinder class. Play nice. RZA zombies have to learn that. Clean up messes – trust me, after a meal, zombies are pretty covered in blood and brains, so you know that’s important. Sharing is also important for zombies – trust me, you don’t want to fight over a body when there’s plenty to go around AND lots of other bodies, too. But since I’m registered with the RZA, I also know I’m not supposed to hit anyone, and you know they teach that in kinder. Yes, I can slip up, which is why I also try and apologize if I hurt someone – again, important to learn at ages five and six.
Yes, I think it’s safe to say that being a kindergarten teacher might just be the best possible occupation for a zombie.
So when Dr. Tina finally pronounced me cured, I immediately petitioned Dr. Beth for an interview.
“I have thought… much about what… I want to do. To… be.”
“That’s most excellent. Though I am confused about the urgency of your request. We at the RZA will do our utmost to help you achieve your goals.”
This was it.
“It is the end… of summer. And I want… to teach… kinder…”
Her eyes widened and I could see her struggle to control her surprise. Which must’ve been a big deal, because I’d thought Dr. Beth had seen everything.
She nodded thoughtfully before answering.
“It occurs to me that there are certain precautions we can take that might help reassure your former place of employment that you can be trusted to nurture and guide a class of young children.”
“Anything. I’ll… do it.”
She arched an eyebrow at me.
“Including being chained to your desk?”
“Oh, it was… like that already.”
“And proximity to the Wannabe?”
That was a tough one. Like every other zombie, the Wannabe completely freaked me out, killing my appetite and making me want to run the other way.
Then again, if that was the only way.
“Okay. But only… if she stays in… the corner.”
Dr. Beth smiled.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Sure enough, Dr. Beth got it worked out and I got my old job back. Principal Dale-Grene was more than happy to see how well I controlled the classroom. And it sure was fun to smile at Ms. Stacey Medcalf whenever I saw her. Sure, I wanted to eat her, but only about the same as anyone else. But she didn’t know that.
Ms. Janet – dear Ms. Janet, who’d come back from the summer completely prepared - volunteered to act as my mentor. I guess she felt bad that I became a zombie since she left me alone that night. But I knew she’d done the right thing. Why?
Because today I can proudly state that my kids are the best-behaved group in the district. Despite the fight it took to get back into the classroom, it has well been worth it. I’ve been asked to conduct workshops at conferences on behavioral methods and ways to encourage my students to achieve more than they previously believed they could.
Truthfully, I think the whole zombie angle has been slightly blown out of proportion. No matter what my smile looks like.
So this morning, when I was dropped off at work, I pretended not to notice the sign and its carefully spaced letters. I walked slowly up the stairs (well, I always walk slowly, but that’s not the point), and nodded graciously as well-wishers congratulated me. A few daring ones even patted me on the back. I smiled shyly, careful to keep my stained teeth hidden and blood-red eyes lowered, pretending to blush even though it was the smell of food warming the skin on my cheeks.
I made my plodding way to my classroom, opened the door, and flicked on the lights. The Wannabe led me to my desk, where she proceeded to shackle me down, albeit loosely enough to let me roam around most of my classroom. With a growing smile, I looked at the ordered desks proudly, at the neat stacks of notebooks and bins, the colorful carpet for story time and the bookcase filled with educationally brilliant literature. Then I turned my head and stared at the chalkboard. Some kind co-worker left me a message:
Congratulations to the
of the Year!
When my kids filed into class that day, I saw we were joined by a new boy. He was excited, talking to everyone, and I thought he would fit in just fine.
After everyone settled in and I took roll, we began our day with my favorite activity – reviewing the alphabet.
“Okay, class… you know what… time it is! A-B-C-D…”
The class followed along, and when we finished, we began our letter-word association.
“A is for?”
“Apple!” shouted the class.
“B is for?”
“Banana!” shouted the class.
We reviewed each letter like always, only now, I stopped at the very end and focused on the most special one.
“Z is fo-”
“Zebra!” shouted one tiny, lone voice, interrupting me in his eagerness to finish. It was the new boy. The room went silent. I stood up and started to walk towards him. I noticed Wannabe in the corner straighten up and start to pay attention. Not that she needed to. I was too busy teaching to be hungry. I stopped right in front of the boy and leaned down.
“Well,” I said in my nicest, gentlest voice, which I guess sounds a lot like my angry voice since the little boy started to hunch down. “It is true… that Zebra starts… with the letter… Z. But in this class… we like to use… a different word. A special word.”
I straightened up and turned to the rest of the kids.
“Class, can you tell me… what Z stands for?”
“ZOMBIE!” they shouted in unison.
I stood there, humbled and overcome, nodding my head. I could see my work oozing out of every child, all the long hours put in condensed into a single loud cheer: Z is for Zombie!
At long last, I truly was Teacher of the Year. That was definitely something to be proud of.
Kinder Z was one of my very first cases as resident psychologist of the RZA. In truth, I was quite excited that Dr. Beth permitted me to allow Kinder Z the time to indulge in her alternative treatment. The rage room is certainly not the first of its kind, but it is the first time any zombie has been given absolute leave to let loose on a regular basis in an attempt to expel recently discovered and crippling rage.
Even if rage itself is a basic tenet of zombiekind, we must remember that the RZA seeks to return a measure of self-control to zombies of all types and backgrounds. Teachers included. And if we are really honest, do they not have more reasons to be angry than anyone else?
After, the Teacher of the Year statue is only made of plastic.
Fortunately, Kinder Z finds success in the most menial of occasions, which remains one of her greatest strengths.
And I must admit, I was quite touched by the picture she drew for me – a large ‘Z’ with a stylized zombie dripping blood leaning against it, all hand-drawn in red crayon.
She’s quite the psychologist’s pet indeed.