Ban on “Bong” T-Shirts Goes Up in Smoke

By Mike Downey, courtesy of the L.A. Times

There is nothing even a little funny about the rash of incidents atAmerica’s high schools involving student violence and/or drug use. Thereis nothing even a little funny about the efforts to restore order to ourschools being made by teachers and/or parents. Or is there?Something a little funny did happen recently, affecting a student bodyfrom Winnebago County and a business based in Orange County. And it’sessential that we keep a sense of humor, even in serious times, because: .”

(a) Hey, we’re only human;
(b) If we don’t laugh at ourselves, somebody else will, and
(c) A mind continues to be a terrible thing to waste. .”

Besides, this is a story that contains no death, illness, crime, racism,sexism or sex, and when’s the last time you got to read one of those?Now, the first thing you’re probably asking yourself is: “WinnebagoCounty?” You mean there’s a whole county out there somewhere named aftera gigantic recreational vehicle? Well, yes and no. Winnebago County doesindeed exist, in the heart (well, abdomen) of one of the prettieststates in the union, Wisconsin. .”

If you would like to know exactly where Winnebago County is, it’s duenorth of Fond du Lac and a little south of Little Chute. Okay? Thatshould clear this up for you. The county was named for a tribe of NativeAmericans known to inhabit eastern Wisconsin and parts of Nebraska, notfor an RV with a sink and a microwave.Anyway, there on the banks of beautiful Lake Poygan sits a friendly towncalled Winneconne. It is a place where if parents wish to dress toddlersin the popular Oshkosh line of clothing, they can drive right down theroad to Oshkosh to buy them..”

Like adults elsewhere, Winneconne parents want their kids to be safe, tobehave sensibly and to grow up to be responsible grownups. Andadministrators of their schools feel the same. So, when they startedhearing about students from other states who were troubled — orstudents who might cause trouble — it hit home. After all, there’d beenso much talk about black trench coats and other cult paraphernalia.Winneconne High School’s faculty wanted to watch for danger signs thatcertain pupils might be bad apples. Sure enough, bong, there camesomething alarming. A few students had begun coming to class ininappropriate, some would even say disturbing clothing — T-shirts withthe word “bong” printed prominently on them.A bong being a pipe utilized in smoking marijuana, school was obviouslyno place for this kind of radical pro-dope apparel! .

Adam Szadkowski, a junior, wore one, and a math teacher instructed himto march directly to a restroom and turn it inside out. Then the schoolbanned the shirts. Swift, decisive action. That’s what this land of oursneeds more of — role models to teach younger generations how to conductthemselves properly. Uh, except for one thing. What was written on theshirt wasn’t “bong.” What was written on the shirt was “Billabong” — ascommon a brand name as Nike or Abercrombie & Fitch.The shirts are manufactured by Billabong USA, a company headquartered inIrvine. The word is Australian in origin and defines a branch to alagoon, a watering hole. You see the shirts on surfers and swimmers allthe time. .

Now, the surfing in Wisconsin stinks. But that doesn’t mean a Billabongshirt is out of place. Szadkowski is a swimmer. He asked in jest if ashirt with “Potato” on it would be OK, since part of that word is “Pot.”It took a little while, but he and others eventually clarified this forPrincipal Ed Dombrowski, who lifted the ban. And just for a laugh, theschool’s 143 seniors, led by class President Sarah Breen, recently votedunanimously to order Billabongs for everybody, in time for graduation.That includes shirts for the school district’s employees as well.A few days ago, Billabong USA shipped 180 shirts to Winneconne’s Classof 2000–free of charge. “Everybody is very happy about it,” says thefirm’s marketing vice president, Graham Stapelbberg. “It was a bit ofconcern at first, when that temporary ban was in place, but I must sayit all turned out well.”

Written on each shirt is a dictionary definition of a billabong. Thatshould teach those teachers a lesson.Mike Downey’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write tohim at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.