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The Tempest on a T-Shirt : Education: The controversy over the ‘underachiever’ symbol has cooled, with some educators even calling it a harmless way for kids to rebel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This may be one time that bad-boy Bart Simpson didn’t deserve to get in trouble.

In the wake of the controversy over a T-shirt on which the animated star of Fox Broadcasting’s “The Simpsons” proclaims “Underachiever and proud of it, man” many teachers, academicians and experts on the effect of TV on young minds are recommending that the school officials who banned the shirt, not Bart, write 100 times on the blackboard “I was wrong.”

Although a few suggested that C-average Bart may not provide the best role model for students, most of those contacted by The Times found Bart--and his “underachiever” T-shirt--at worst harmless and at best a healthy way for kids to rebel against authority, man.

Last week, it looked as though Bart’s checkered academic career might be over for good as two elementary schools, one in the Midwest and one in California, banned the “underachiever” T-shirt. La Habra School District superintendent Rich Hermann recommended that parents keep all “Simpsons” T-shirts at home. J.C. Penney’s yanked the “underachiever” T-shirt and another bearing the words “Hi, I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” from its boys’ and mens’ departments.

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But many teachers say they don’t share the concern about Bart’s image.

“Every generation needs its anti-hero, so to speak,” said Larry Moore, a world history teacher at Arroyo Seco Junior High in Valencia. “In past generations, it was Holden Caulfield; now, it’s Bart Simpson. Maybe this is the evolution of ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ ”

Reasoned Liba Feuerstein, who teaches 12th-grade English at Granada Hills High: “I would think that an underachiever wouldn’t know what the hell an underachiever is . . . . It seems to me (that) in L.A., kids have enough to worry about, making sure they don’t wear (gang colors) and get their throats slit, without worrying about a T-shirt.”

“I think the school management has to keep its sense of humor, and not overreact to certain things,” said Shirley Owen, a retired teacher in Coleman, Mich., a town of 1,500 residents near Midland.

The school superintendents who banned Bart stick by their decision, however. Bart remains unable to return to class at Cambridge Elementary School in Orange and Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio. And he’s not welcome in La Habra, either.

“Basically, what we’re saying is that we want to spend some time reinforcing good behavior and self-esteem, rather than looking at an anti-hero,” Hermann said. “Maybe Bart could actually start talking about achievement rather than underachievement, just as cartoons have been used to send out an anti-drug message. We think this is a kind of anti-school message, and that’s not what we’re here for.”

Jackie Goldberg, president of the Board of Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that she is against banning the T-shirt. Still, she believes that Bart represents another example of TV discouraging scholarship and continuing to make high intelligence the sole province of nerds, wimps and Vulcans.

“I think that for most of our kids, wearing a T-shirt has nothing to do with achievement in school; they see it as totally separate,” Goldberg said. “But it represents an anti-intellectualism that is not healthy, and is within our culture.

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“TV has a few smart kids in that show ‘Head of the Class,’ but a lot of them are not attractive, either. The overall message is that if you are an underachiever, you are cute and darling, and if you are smart, you can’t be well-rounded--you wear your pants around your neck and have pimples on your skin. . . . You can’t create this image and then decry the fact that nobody wants to do well in school. It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Gordon Berry, a professor of counseling and educational psychology at UCLA, said that no research exists to prove that students might take a message on a T-shirt seriously.

“On the other hand, to highlight and footnote underachievement may not be the best role model,” he said. “From a psychological perspective, many underachievers would like not to be. . . . I’m not convinced that all underachievement is funny or comical.

“I guess if I had my option, the T-shirt would say: ‘I’m Bart Simpson, I’m an underachiever and I’m trying to do better,’ ” he added. “But that’s not much fun, is it?”

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Peggy Charren, president of the consumer group Action for Children’s Television, said, “I think that if schools ban a T-shirt like that . . . it would make it impossible to teach those kids about freedom of speech and constitutional rights. I think it’s an outrageous decision. It’s not like ‘underachiever’ is a word you can’t say out loud. . . . If I were the kids, I would certainly organize a legal case, or least start talking to the press.”

UCLA’s Berry and Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at UCLA, said that they believe most kids wear Bart T-shirts for Bart’s sake, rather than because of what the shirt says.

“Things like this have less impact on kids when they are ignored,” Stipek said. “In some cases, the adult reaction can have the exact opposite effect than was intended.”

USC clinical psychologist Barbara Kadow said that watching Bart may actually help underachievers or kids with family problems because they can identify with him.

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“I think the neat thing about the Simpsons is that they make everybody feel OK,” she said. ". . . When Homer (Bart’s father) is giving Bart a hard time, telling him he’s ignorant or whatever, kids can think, ‘Bart’s gone through hell, and so have I.’ ”

As for the kids? They say don’t have a cow. Thirteen-year-old Sean Mackin, a seventh grader at Placerita Junior High School in Newhall, and his 9-year-old sister Katie, a fourth grader at Peachland School, don’t believe they or their schoolmates are influenced by the “underachiever” shirt.

“It’s, like, most kids’ favorite shirt,” Sean said. “I don’t think (banning it) makes much sense to me. I think most people who watch it realize that it’s just a cartoon. Some kids want to be like him, but they realize they have to study, too.”

Matt Allen and Barry Shapira, eighth-graders at Arroyo Seco Junior High, think the T-shirt wearers should be left alone. “Everyone knows that Bart is a total nerd; no one wants to be like him,” Barry said.

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Added Matt: “I don’t think anybody wants to be like Bart--he’s kind of exaggerated and blown out of proportion. It’s just another T-shirt. When they first came out, they made other people laugh, but now they just kind of go: ‘Big deal, he has a T-shirt,’ there’s just so many of them. It hasn’t affected me, and it hasn’t affected anyone else.”


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