When I was in the second grade, Mrs. Cosgrove, our teacher, used to show us these educational videos. I’m sure teaching a bunch of little kids has got to be a physically and emotionally draining way to spend a day, so I don’t really begrudge the fact that she’d phone it in once in a while by turning on the TV and telling us to be quiet. But while everyone else would get excited whenever the maintenance guy would knock on the door to wheel in one of the school’s TVs, my heart would stop.
I went into school every single day with a pit in my stomach, a constant fear. Would today be the day? Because there wasn’t a schedule. It wasn’t like, “OK class, it’s 10:30 on Wednesday, so you know what that means, educational TV time.” No, it was just whenever the teacher felt like it. Sometimes we’d go months without so much as a spotting of a VHS tape. But then maybe we’d watch TV for two or three days in a row. I couldn’t rest. There was no escape from the fear. Every day had the potential to turn into a TV day without any warning.
And it wasn’t the TV that I was afraid of, it was this one particular show that we had to watch. It was called Storylords. It was about this little kid around my age and his younger sister. Each episode, they were visited by this wizard guy from another dimension. His world was overrun by a crazy warlord named Thorzul.
Thorzul as a screen presence wasn’t that scary. It was really bad, cheap acting, just some guy in a black cape. He kind of looked like my dentist. But it was his character, this dictator of that other world, he had powers. He could turn people into stone.
And I was terrified. Like sitting there, sweating bullets, looking around at all my classmates, unable to understand how they were all just smiling, watching TV, all while I was trying my best to keep it together, to not freak out and start screaming.
I’m a little fuzzy on the specifics of the show, but for whatever reason, that wizard that I was talking about earlier, he would always need the kids’ help. So he teleported them to his home dimension where they’d have to confront Thorzul and, well, they’d have to basically take an oral spelling and grammar quiz. “Spell this word correctly or I’ll turn you into a statue!”
And yeah, they always got it right, and then not only would they be spared an eternal hell, a life trapped in living stone, but all the other statues would usually be restored back to life also. But man, for whatever reason, the idea of it, of being forced to ace a pop quiz, the pressure of getting it wrong, of feeling my insides harden as my skin turned grey. And what would it look like? What would be the last thing I’d see before my eyes cemented over? Would I be dead? Or just trapped forever?
I’d barely make it through each episode, just quivering in my seat, hands clenched tightly around the sides of my desk, unable to shake that feeling of having just been mentally violated. What was the point of these videos? Why was my school trying to reinforce my already pretty decent reading and writing skills by terrorizing me into never making any mistakes?
And so that’s what most of my year was like, just praying that it wouldn’t be a TV day, that I wouldn’t have to watch Storylords.
Yet it always happened, maybe not immediately, but eventually, there’d be a knock at the door, everyone would get all excited, the maintenance guy would drag in that set, an old fashioned box mounted on top of a rolling dolly. It all came to a head one day midyear, Mrs. Cosgrove popped in the Storylords VHS, and instead of the usual introductory exposition, this particular episode skipped straight to the horror.
The kids were sitting in school, in a classroom not that different from the one I was currently sitting in. Then, a flash of light, and there they appeared, Thorzul and his little henchman, they had somehow crossed over into our reality, taken the fight to us, a surprise offensive. He skipped the normal pleasantries and used his powers to partially turn the little boy into stone. He could look around, but he couldn’t move or talk. Then the dark lord turned to the sister, “All right! Answer my phonics questions correctly or your brother’s a statue for good!”
At this point I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and started screaming, running out of the classroom and straight into the boys’ restroom. Crouched in the corner with my hands covering my eyes, I tried to get myself together, to stop myself from crying at least, hoping that nobody had seen where I’d run.
But of course they knew where to look. And it was a huge deal. Mrs. Cosgrove was like, “What’s wrong with you?” completely unable to make the connection between Thorzul’s wrath and my little panic. They took me to the principal’s, my mom was called in. I remember sitting there in the office while my mom and Mrs. Cosgrove watched the program that had caused my extreme reaction.
I felt like such a baby. And this wasn’t the first time my mom had to be called in to quell an emotional panic. A year earlier, one of my classmates brought the whole room some candy for her birthday. I was passed this little yellow box of JujyFruits. I’d never seen this candy before, and on the box was this illustration of a cartoon girl. It was a poorly drawn almost stick-like figure, pale white skin with a little squiggly line for a mouth. For whatever reason, I made eye contact with the drawing and this wretched creature pulled me into some sort of a void. I couldn’t identify the feelings at the time, but they’re the same exact responses I get now as an adult when I’m occasionally lying in bed wide-awake at four in the morning thinking about how someday I and everyone I know will …
Well, there’s no reason to get too morbid here. But it was that same feeling again this time with Thorzul, only now the fear wasn’t as abstract as it was the year before. I sat there and worried if I was going to be in trouble, if all the other kids were going to make fun of me for running out of the classroom.
But no, my mom finished up her talk with Mrs. Cosgrove, she took me home, and that was it, really. There wasn’t anything to talk about I guess, and nobody in school mentioned it when I came back the next day. Also, we never watched Storylords ever again. So there was that, a huge relief, I didn’t have to sit there and worry every day.
Still, even though I’m an adult now, I can still remember what it felt like to feel that afraid. It’s almost like a residual imprint of a memory that I can no longer completely access. And I wonder how much those feelings haunt my current life. Like if I get stuck on the wording of a sentence, am I really concerned about the quality of my writing? Or do I still fear at some level that any failure will result in my being turned into stone? And who OK-ed Storylords? Didn’t anybody along the chain of production think to themselves, man, this is messed up?