My name is Tom Sypniewski. I just graduated this month from Warren Hills High School in Washington – here in New Jersey. Graduation was a relief after what I’ve been through these last few months.
It all started back in March when I wore a T-shirt to school that listed Jeff Foxworthy’s Top 10 Reasons You Might be a Redneck Sports Fan. The reasons were things like “you wear a baseball cap to bed.” The shirt was meant to be funny. None of the 10 reasons or anything on the shirt was offensive. But Vice Principal Griffith told me that it was offensive. He said “redneck” means a violent, bigoted person. Mr. Griffith told me that, therefore, my shirt violated the dress code and I should change it. But I knew he was wrong about the shirt and I knew it was my right to wear it, so I said I wouldn’t change it. So he suspended me for 3 days.
I really didn’t mean to offend or insult anyone. I say I’m a redneck because I like to hunt and fish, mend fences, bail hay, and listen to country music. Besides that, I wear the T-shirt because I think it’s funny.
A lot of people must identify with being a redneck, or at least not be offended by the word, because I know Jeff Foxworthy’s first album, which was called “You Might Be A Redneck If…,” sold the most copies of any comedy album ever. And shirts like mine must be very popular in Wal-Mart, where I bought mine, because they’ve been selling them there for years. I don’t think Wal-Mart would be selling those shirts if they offended the customers. Jeff Foxworthy performs all over the country, telling redneck jokes, and I haven’t heard anyone accuse him of being a racist.
I don’t know what Mr. Griffith and the school board are worried about. They say my T-shirt could cause disruption, but I wore it all year and it never caused any disruption. Until Mr. Griffith ordered me to take it off, nobody ever found it offensive or intimidating or complained about it in any way. They say I’m guilty of stereotyping for wearing that shirt, but if anyone is stereotyping, it’s the school.
This thing has really hurt, because I work hard in school and did well. And yet, because of my suspension, I was no longer considered a student in good standing at the High School. That hurts. My lawyers are asking that any mention of my suspension be removed from my high school record. And I hope we get that, because I don’t want my reputation to be damaged any further because of what shirt I wore.
But what bothers me the most is that the school board publicly accused me of trying to send some sort of racist message with my T-shirt. And people hear that. So now people have called me a gang leader and a “stupid Polack.” Well, I’m neither of those. And I think the school board owes me a public apology for what they’ve done to me. Thank you.
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