Last fall, Whiskey Bottom Road Elementary School student Eric Billman won an amateur film award at the International Film Festival in Anaheim, Calif. The proud-fourth grader joined other aspiring film makers on stage. Then his school's name was announced. And the audience laughed.
In an era when drug and alcohol abuse is recognized as one of society's biggest problems, having a school named after liquor may be an embarrassment but is no laughing matter, according to fifth-graders in Judy Rice's Gifted and Talented Class.
The class has formally requested that the Howard County School Board rename their school. In arguing their case, the students cited the name's negative connotations and opinion polls that show the name is unpopular with students.
"Drinking among the young is now a serious medical and social concern," the students said in a report to the board. "The name . . . reinforces the idea among young children that drinking is acceptable."
The students were persuasive. Unofficially, school officials say the school probably will be renamed by next fall. The names suggested by the students at the North Laurel school: Laurel Woods, Laurel Park or Snowden Manor.
The students' campaign partially reflects a changing social climate. When the school was named in 1972 after an old wagon trail, society's tolerance for drug and alcohol drug use was much greater than it is today, drug rehabilitation experts said. Now, with the news media reporting on very young alcoholics and crack cocaine addicts, awareness of drug and alcohol abuse is much greater among children, according to Frank McGloin, director of the Howard County Health Center's Addictions Services Center.
"One thing that's changed is, you see more things talked about at an earlier age to children," the former probation officer said.
The openness with which drug and alcohol abuse are discussed has encouraged children to speak out, McGloin said. "The younger kids are more likely to challenge family members, more likely to challenge the industry" about attitudes toward drugs and alcohol, he said.
The school was named after longtime residents said "Whiskey Bottom" would reflect the area's history, according to school board meeting minutes and newspaper articles.
The school sits at Whiskey Bottom and All Saints roads. According to a January 1972 article, Whiskey Bottom Road was once an old wagon trail along which teams hauled casks of whiskey to a shack at the bottom of the road -- hence the name "Whiskey Bottom."
Fred Schoenbrodt, school board chairman at the time, said the road's name dates to colonial times. There was a distillery in the area, and barrels of whiskey were transported down the road to a ship landing in Elkridge, Schoenbrodt said.
Rice's students challenge those accounts of the name's origin, however. As part of the class project, the students pored over history books, old newspaper articles and 19-century maps of the area. A national survey map from 1878 lists the name of the road as Old Annapolis Road, not Whiskey Bottom Road, the students learned. The name Whiskey Bottom may only date to the 1920s, the students contend.
The Howard County Historical Society has no written documentation of the origin of the name "Whiskey Bottom," said Anita Cushing, assistant librarian for the society.
This isn't the first time people have tried to change the school's name, according to Cushing. In the past, some residents have sought to have the name changed to All Saints Road School. "This isn't a new thing by any means. It keeps recurring," she said.
The school's name sparked debate from the very beginning, according to a 1972 newspaper article on the school board meeting in which "Whiskey Bottom" was approved. "It was obvious the board was not particularly intoxicated with putting a Whiskey Bottom label on a facility . . . where the majority of patrons would most definitely be considerably under age," the article said.
The story quotes school board member Austin Zimmer as saying that "I think we'll live to regret this."
Eighteen years later, however, Zimmer and his former colleagues maintain they did the right thing, that the name's historical value outweighs any negative connotations.
"We still have in the history books the Whiskey Rebellion. And we don't mind that," said Zimmer, now retired and living in Elkridge. "I think it's making a mountain out a molehill."
Meanwhile, fourth-grader Eric Billman and other Whiskey Bottom students say everyone from receptionists to museum officials chuckles at the school's name. When student Laurette Hall was preparing to transfer to Whiskey Bottom from a Prince George's County school, "the kids there said, 'What do they do -- drink whiskey?' " she recalled.
School staffers sometimes use the nickname "The Bottom" for the school, the students complain. Fifth-grader Jason Testman wears a button featuring a drawing of a green whiskey bottle inside a red circle with a red line across it. Trapped inside the bottle is a stick figure child. "We're not at the bottom," the button reads.
Hall said her class decided to fight for a name change because "We got tired of being laughed at and made fun of."