Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Honor and Honor Students: A Bumpy Road Ahead

Let me be upfront about my belief: The sole purpose of a bumper sticker is to express one’s allegiance politically (national and statewide candidates only) and athletically (ideally, a team with a winning record in the season during which the sticker was purchased). Messages whizzing by in the carpool lane do not lend themselves to nuance or ambiguity. If people need to pull over and google on their iPhones what is on the bumper in front of them, it then becomes a public safety issue. The goal of a bumper sticker is to educate, not endanger, your four-wheeled friends.

A bumper sticker has achieved its end if the person following the car has to squelch the urge either to wave at the driver in solidarity or rear-end the car in question by gunning the accelerator. Obama—not Bush. Red Sox—not Yankees. Hugging with Nuclear Arms—probably not a good idea. These moral decision trees are difficult enough to navigate at a hard stop, let alone while driving 75 miles an hour. And throw in the insistent voice of an automated GPS dominatrix and you can see how the average driver is being pushed to the limit.

When it comes to bumper sticker protocol, I’m referring to those stickers that adhere directly to a car’s back bumper (also called a rear fender). Not the transparent ones that go on the back window, which should abide by a different set of rules. Those should identify an accredited alma mater of either the car’s owner or a first-degree relative. The school must have an actual campus (not just a floor in a high-rise) and be legally permitted to confer degrees. If the person is still attending the school, they should be full-time enrollees, not part of any extension, visiting or evening program. Otherwise, the driver should be able to produce on demand (like at a red light or traffic stop) proof that someone in the family has an actual bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree from the school identified on the window. Of course, stickers on the back window should not depict a family of 8 with stick-figure drawings (with or without pets) in descending order of height. They should not glorify characters from Calvin and Hobbes urinating. And, it goes without saying, they should never, ever pay homage to any sort of religious figure or so-called spiritual personal belief.

The subject of the bumper sticker must be one that has been recently debated on a national Cable Television Network. The message should leave no doubt as to the driver’s leanings. Of course, if this means that some car owners may be more vulnerable to auto theft or burglary than others, then that is the price one has to pay for expressing their First Amendment Rights. One should be able to look at a pimped ride and picture the driver perhaps having cocktails with Keith Olbermann, or watching SportsCenter in Packers pajamas. The freeway is not the time to challenge fellow drivers to translate your message from a foreign tongue, or to promote a regional cause that will be meaningless to the driver in back of you. If you absolutely never take the Ford outside of your suburban cul-de-sac, then I suppose, if you must, you can get away with a sticker that touts a local restaurant or bar, for example. And then it should be because you are a frequent patron, not because the bumper sticker was free or you thought putting it on your car makes you seem edgier than you actually are.
Another ilk where there is no gray area whatsoever is the “Proud Parent of an Honor Student at… ” bumper sticker. First of all, I have never seen one of these stickers proclaim there to be “Proud Parents” or “Proud Relative Caregiver” or “Kind of Embarrassed Kin.” So these bumper stickers in and of themselves are making some sort of statement that in order for a child to be the recipient of “pride,” s/he must have a singular parent who is also a car owner/lessee. And if we start with that assumption, the constellation of students with the aforementioned auto-owning caregiver who ALSO get above-average grades is even smaller. For example, I do not believe any of my relatives have ever attended a school that had such bumper stickers available. And, truthfully, stressed teachers do not need added pressure from the administrations of those few schools who have stockpiled these stickers to produce good students. From a business model standpoint, the production of these stickers hardly seems worth it.

I have taken an informal sample of the bumpers of neighbors who I suspect may have excellent students, and I have yet to see any statement about their child’s grades affixed to their car. But more to the point, with the length of time people keep cars nowadays, such bumper stickers are rife with ethical dilemmas. First of all, Honor Student Status is only as good as the last report card. I mean, getting an “A” in one semester does nothing to mitigate a “D” the next. So by gluing onto an automobile public evidence of a parent’s presumed “pride” over an offspring’s academic accomplishment, the parent is banking on the fact that the child will continue to achieve at the same rate. If not, the parent risks being the laughingstock of his/her school district. Just as I believe people with university stickers on their windows should produce a diploma on demand, parents with these “Honor Student” stickers should be required to have a current report card in the glove compartment at all times.

I wonder about what goes on in the homes of families with these stickers. Are children discouraged from taking challenging courses so as not to risk their A’s, lest mom or dad has to trade in the Honda before the lease is up? Does the child have to work at a fast-food establishment to pay for the fees incurred by turning in the car early? Are students who fall from Honor Roll punished by having to apply Goo-Gone to the back bumper until every trace of the sticker is gone? Will the children have to start walking to school so as not to be associated with the cars touting their former glory? Alas, there are no easy answers.  


  1. Further bumper sticker rule: if you are promoting your school, you might not want to drive like an idiot.

    It says, "I went to college, but I think it is okay to turn left from the right-hand lane. I am an educated moron."

  2. Doug--

    That is why I have no school affiliations on my car! Gives me license to make those "creative" turns when needed :)

    Love your blog too! Thanks for visiting!