Turned Into Zombies By The School System, Two Local Educators Retired … And Began Churning Out Zombies Of Their Own
Jeanice Thibodeaux Biondini and Charlotte Comeaux both devoted full careers to the educational systems of Southwest Louisiana. Although they mainly worked as teachers, they also worked at administrative levels. And they spent a great deal of time providing guidance to children with special needs and troubled backgrounds, and in working with the agencies that endeavor to help or monitor such youths.
Unfortunately, after having devoted decades to the educational system, they gradually reached the conclusion that the educational system — as it existed — just wasn’t working. Not for teachers and not for students.
“So many [official bureaucratic] policies were taking away the freedom and creativity of teachers,” says Biondini. “It was starting to affect my personal integrity.”
“We’re not here to bang the school system,” says Comeaux. Nevertheless, over the years, she became convinced that “everything we worked so hard for was being left behind … The students aren’t first [anymore].”
What has taken the place of the focus on the students, Biondini and Comeaux seem to say, are rules and regulations — “learning targets” and evaluations and so forth. It’s a system that keeps teachers busy filling out stacks of forms and prevents them from using their creativity, knowledge and skills to help students foster their love of learning.
And so they quit. Both of them. They didn’t want to end what they’d assumed would be lifelong careers as teachers and educators. But they’d had enough.
“We felt like zombies,” says Comeaux.
A Zombie Is Born
Now comes the remarkable part of the story. Biondini and Comeaux took those feelings of being a disappointed, washed-out zombie and expressed them by making a doll that looked like a zombie … and then naming that doll “Teacher Burn-Out.”
How did it happen? Biondini already had an artistic background and knew how to paint. Comeaux was handy as a seamstress. “I was trying to understand my feelings,” says Biondini. “Since I painted and sewed, I created this zombie doll. [And when it was finished, I thought], This is what I feel.”
And thus it was that Teacher Burn-Out — the first of the Cajun Swamp Zombie dolls — was created. Teacher Burn-Out was followed in short order by other zombie dolls — Parti Gras Zombie, Shopaholic Zombie, Homewrecker Zombie, Internet Love Zombie, Over The Hill Zombie and others.
The distinctive dolls are called Cajun Swamp Zombies for good reasons. Biondini, who spent much of her youth in Mamou, was careful to follow the style patterns of the world-famous Mamou Mardi Gras costumes. Thus, all the sisters’ zombie dolls are festooned with an elaborate array of strips of cloth of many different colors. Although each doll has its own color scheme, at the same time, they all seem to feature a rainbow of colors.
In their design, the dolls bear an unmistakable resemblance to the popular notion of what a South Louisiana voodoo doll looks like. They have the same stitched-up lips; big, round vacant eyes and skeletal noses — features that, as it happens, make the dolls look just like the zombies of TV and movies.
The doll, in combination with its long, flowing Mardi Gras-style costume, measures more than a foot in length. It retails for $19.95 — not bad considering that each doll has a hand-painted face and a hand-sewn costume with an original design. No two dolls are the same.
Zombies With A Story
Each zombie has its own story; a copy of the story is attached to the doll with a little red ribbon.
The stories all follow a similar pattern. When the zombies were alive, they did questionable, and sometimes hurtful, things to themselves and others. Now that they’re zombies, they roam the earth advising others not to make the same risky choices they made.
This very brief summary makes the stories of the zombie dolls sound a bit grim (which, of course, is entirely appropriate for zombies). But in fact, some of the zombie stories contain quite whimsical language.
For instance, Over the Hill Zombie advises the living “to enjoy the gift of life and the benefits of age, such as senior discounts, retirement, traveling, and the freedom to say and do as you please.” Parti Gras Zombie ends her life when she becomes too intoxicated at a Mardi Gras parade and asphyxiates on her Mardi Gras beads.
And Shopaholic Zombie “now roams all stores during sale events trying to warn people that although a super deal is a great thing, it is never worth your life!” (She died in a stampede that took place when a store holding a big sale opened its doors.)
Zombies With A Message
If you think you’re starting to notice a pattern here, you’re onto something. These zombie dolls are all spreading a message of one kind or another. In particular, they’re returning to earth to remind the living that their choice has consequences.
“The messages are meant to change behavior,” says Comeaux.
This emphasis on the need for getting useful, helpful, practical messages across was something the women took away from their frustrating educational experiences.
“It seemed to us that the message from the schools was that [students are] not empowered to change [their] lives,” says Biondini. “Children didn’t see they were empowered. They thought life just happened to them.”
“We want to make a positive difference in society,” says Comeaux. “And the doll’s the spokesman,” adds Biondini.
All of this is very evident in the way the dolls are marketed. Marketing tag lines encourage customers to: “Say it with a zombie!” and promise “Messages With Humor And Emotion.”
“In a non-judgmental way,” says Biondini, “the dolls are all about accepting personal responsibility … It all goes back to choices and consequences.”
Many of the dolls came into existence in response to friends’ suggestions. It’s little surprise, then, that the experiences the zombies relate in their stories are all very common ones. The poor choices they made when they were alive may well be the very choices that school children from troubled families have seen the adults around them make — excessive use of alcohol (Parti Gras Zombie), over-indulgence in consumerism (Shopaholic Zombie), unfaithfulness to one’s spouse (Home Wrecker Zombie), careless use of the Internet (Internet Love Zombie) or unquestioned allegiance to political positions (Political Agenda Zombie).
The tendency to take most of the ideas for the dolls from clients and customers has resulted in some controversy.
For instance, there’s the Wifebeater Zombie doll. He wears a tiny dirty sleeveless t-shirt — a wifebeater. More to the point, in his story we learn that his life on earth involved frequent violent abuse of his wife — abuse that eventually ended her life.
Now, there’s no way to make the story of this zombie sound whimsical or funny. But, as I mentioned above, each zombie’s story revolves around common human experiences. Although the Wifebeater Zombie’s story is a serious one, it resonates with those who have some experience of domestic abuse in their lives. Comeaux says a large number of the Wifebeater Zombie dolls were bought by an attorney, who claimed that the dolls looked like a lot of his clients.
A doll the two women call “very controversial” is the Pink & Blue Zombie. This is the doll of a zombie of a fetus that was aborted before it came to term. Now it roams the earth, urging people to think about the consequences of any sexual activities they are thinking of undertaking.
“We don’t want to be offensive,” says Biondini. The dolls are trying “to communicate what [our friends and customers] want us to communicate.”
Comeaux and Biondini have started a second line of spooky figurine collectibles. These are the Team Spirits.
They are ghost-like dolls who are also adorned with Mardi Gras-type costumes. However, the colors of the costume are those of the team the consumer is supporting. (For example, the Team Spirit doll for McNeese wears a bright blue and gold costume made of long cloth streamers.)
Each Team Spirit sits atop a long stick so that one can wave it back and forth during games if one likes. Teams or fans can place bulk orders of the dolls.
Although it’s hard to believe, the very first zombie doll was made in February of this year. Comeaux and Biondini have put together this entire project in just eight months.
There are a few other amazing facts related to this operation. The two say that when they work together, they can make one of the dolls in two hours. They say that at present, they are meeting their demand by working just 20 hours a week. And they’re even turning a small profit. At this early stage, all money goes right back into the business.
The dolls are made entirely in the U.S. As business grows, the two women may hire local artists part-time and teach them how to craft the dolls. They do not plan to send piece-meal work overseas.
Cajun Swamp Zombies is one of the SEED Center projects. The two creators say they will work with the SEED Center, among others, to try to increase the distribution of the new products.
At present, you can find the zombie dolls locally at the Louisiana Market, Gordon’s Drug Store and the Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Center. If you’re in New Orleans, you can find the dolls at Glass Magick Designs at 713 Toulouse St. and Bayou Blue at 411 Decatur St. The dolls will also be featured in a booth in Lake Charles’ Flea Fest Nov. 15-16. Dolls retail for $19.98 each.
If you want to follow this fascinating project of creativity and enterprise, or if you just want to buy or look at a Cajun Swamp Zombie, visit www.2cajunladies.com. You can also go to Facebook and search for “2 Cajun Ladies.”
If you take away just one thing from this story, perhaps it could be the mantra that Teacher Burn-Out utters as it walks among the living on earth. It’s a mantra of two simple words: “Students first.”