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There's a story behind the Canyon Del Oro Academic Decathlon T-shirts

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When you've been a columnist for a while, you sometimes find yourself looking for things to write about. For example, I once wrote a column about how Circle K had a shortage of long straws for their fountain drinks. (This was before they switched over to the single-length blue straws.) I realized that it was frivolous, but I had to vent.

Well, I got eight e-mails from people who all said that they each thought they were the only ones irritated by the situation. I also got twice that many e-mails suggesting that I be replaced by Connie Tuttle. Or Connie Francis.

Anyway, I'm over at Starbuck Design, where I get my basketball team's practice gear and sweatshirts done, and I noticed some artwork on a table.

It was unlike anything I've ever seen on a shirt--four stern-looking Asians, obviously members of Mao Tse-Tung's Communist revolution--so I asked the proprietor, Dave Starbuck, what it was.

He explained that the shirts were for the members of the Academic Decathlon team at Canyon Del Oro High School.

Now, I'm pretty easygoing about stuff, and I sincerely believe that, having survived the simultaneous blind curves of puberty and middle school, high schoolers have earned the right to be stupid for a while. But this was more than stupid. The picture was downright ominous. From left to right are a peasant holding some grotesque-looking bladed weapon; a man in full military uniform with shouldered rifle and bayonet sticking up next to his ear; a tradesman of some kind holding aloft Mao's Little Red Book in his right hand; and a woman holding a machine gun in her hands and, judging by her grimace, a lump of coal--en route to becoming a diamond--in between her butt cheeks.

Below the picture are Chinese characters, which I was told denote "Canyon Del Oro Academic Decathlon."

Next to it was the artwork for the back of the T-shirts. At the top are some more Chinese characters. Below that, "2006-07 Canyon Del Oro Academic Decathlon" and then a list of names, all written in that faux, stilted printing like you see on the menus at bad Chinese restaurants. The names of the team members--Ebaa Al-Obeidi, Susana Salinas, Thien Dinh, Courtney McGurk and about 20 others--conjure up visions of central casting geek-warriors like you'd see on an episode of Saved by the Bell.

I asked what the writing on the top meant and was told it translates to "Whoever Is Against Canyon Del Oro Will Have His Dog's Head Broken."

Okee-dokee.

Y'all know I'm a big supporter of public schools in general, and the Amphi schools in particular. They did a spectacular job of educating my kids, and both went through their respective 13 years without a fight or ever coming into contact with drugs or alcohol or gangs. Or, I reminded myself, Communist propaganda.

I thought, maybe the right-wing nutbird voucher-loving hypocrites are right. Maybe the public schools have gone too far. My daughter was in the marching band, but that was about as militaristic as things ever got.

I decided to call the team's adviser, Chris Yetman. He answered his own phone, which kinda took me aback. If he worked for the Tucson Unified School District, I would have had to submit a list of questions in advance to some faceless bureaucrat at the central office and then hope that somebody--anybody!--who didn't have their jaw wired shut might call me back in a few days and say, "No comment."

Yetman was cheerful and enthusiastic and said he would be happy to talk to me about the shirt. For some reason, I suddenly thought about The Manchurian Candidate.

I described my reaction to the shirt, and he laughed. He said that most people would have the same (misguided) concerns. Apparently, Academic Decathlon is not Scholar-Quiz or College Bowl, where people just ask a lot of general knowledge questions like, "What are the three national capitals of South Africa?" (Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein.)

Rather, they choose a different topic each year, and every team in the country that competes must study that topic. This year's topic is the Mao-led Communist revolution (from whence came the "dog head" line). Furthermore, it's not just quiz questions; there are essays and speeches and all kinds of smart-kid stuff. Yetman spoke with the passion and enthusiasm of what he is--a teacher/adviser/coach who's in it for the kids and not for the money. He ended by pointing out that CDO is the defending state champ in the Academic Decathlon.

I rather meekly asked whether the kids who designed the shirts understood that millions of Chinese died during the revolution and the Great Leap Forward (toward industrialization) that followed. He paused, then said, "Well, yeah. And by the time we're done, they'll understand that better than just about everybody else in America."

Good point.

While it is a team effort, the star of the team is a kid named Juhyung Sun, who was a member of CDO's homecoming royalty recently and showed up to school that day dressed as Kim Jong-il.

Who says you can't act stupid and be stylish at the same time?

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