Burn the Zebra! No! Retain the Zebra in good stead.

Connection, December 19, 2023

By Doug Davis and Jed Donnel

You know that new game, Connections, by the New York Times, that one that my mother-in-law plays on her iPhone? It’s the one where you’re given seemingly random words and have to figure out the connection, or thread between them. Yea, that one. Does your mother-in-law play it too? Well, now think of Cocoa Zebra, the annual middle school tradition, like that–a bunch of random stuff that you are trying to thread together, but alas it never quite makes any sense. Kinda like, why does this tradition include piping hot mugs of delectable hot chocolate a la Polar Express, with Zebra rugs, bow ties and now Burning Man style laser light shows tying it all together? As Founder and CEO, I couldn’t begin to tell you, but what I can say is it brings a whole lot of inclusivity, fun and laughter to students in December.

The simple nature of the tradition is a gift exchange, but that would wholly ignore the complex nuance of its cultish appeal. Before administrators saw the problem of placing both Jed and Doug next to each other, we had creative license to go wild. Since the first celebration, five years ago, the appeal has grown to include a post exchange soiree. The event unfolds over the course of a week (more or less), and each student draws the name of another from a hat – needs to be a hat; very important that it’s a hat – who becomes their ‘Cocoa Zebra.’ Then, during successive days, they each secretly bring their C.Z. ‘something to eat,’ ‘something they’ve made’, ‘a school supply’ and, finally, on the day of the big reveal, a small, personal gift (max of $5) for whom they believe has claim to them. Each year they’ve also added their own wrinkles to the accouterments, including during the winter of 2021 – the year in which the whole thing really took off – when, in an attempt to transcend the malaise of COVID isolation, Doug and Jed piped live footage of each other’s Middle School Cocoa Zebra celebrations over Zoom feeds. Students outclassed their required masks with semi-formal attire (ushering in the now timeless bow tie tradition) and exchanged gifts from six feet apart (Oh, the humanity!) seated in front of digital fireplaces. Since then, we’ve added safari camps with vintage Land Rover photo booths and dreamy winter beach scenes. And, although Jed’s departure to the Mountain Campus has meant less time for us to collaborate in person, the tradition remains intact. His Advisory has moved the festivities to the Upper School, and, this year, they added Hawaiian shirts (kind of) over the general green that was the theme of today’s larger Spirit Week competition between students (green) and faculty (red). Hence, Camden also wore a green-screen as a makeshift toga, and we therefore spent a considerable portion of the Advisory watching a tutorial video on how to properly wrap a toga; it didn’t work, but, obviously, togas are now a part of the C.Z. tradition. Certainly, the intention is for the event to spread across campus over future installments (a few students tell me that they read “The Connection,” so I’m expecting big things next year); we’ll see how quickly other faculty pick up the torch. 

This year’s theme on the Emerald Campus was “Burning Zebra.” Doug backdropped the decor with festive dress and disco lights, lots of glitter and flair, and a desert ambience meant to evoke certain odd traditions in Southern California but without the threat of flood, abandonment, or hospitalization. He and the MS students crafted a metropolis on the STEAM lab playa, where they pretended to burn the Zebra and briefly used a smoke machine without setting off the fire alarm system. Ah, the magic lives on! May it shine into the future, forever. Viva Cocoa Zebra!