The Great Mitt Romney T-Shirt Brouhaha of 2012: What Went Wrong

A Port Richmond teen set off a national firestorm with her Romney T-shirt. She's 16. What's everybody else's excuse?

There’s something about a presidential election that turns ordinarily sane, mature adults into name-calling adolescents straight out of Mean Girls. So it’s not a surprise that The Great Mitt Romney T-Shirt Brouhaha of 2012 started inside a Port Richmond high school classroom. It’s not even surprising that ostensible adults are acting like jerks about the matter. It’s just disappointing.

Samantha Pawlucy is 16 years old. What’s everybody else’s excuse?

Here is what we should be able to agree upon: Pawlucy had every right to wear a pro-Mitt Romney T-shirt to school a few weeks back. She violated no dress code. The First Amendment doesn’t disappear at the schoolhouse doors. That should be the end of the story.

Only it isn’t. Pawlucy’s T-shirt set off a chain of events that’s still reverberating to new heights of vitriol and meanness, and one thing seems clear: There are a whole bunch of grownups who deserve detention. Almost nobody associated with the matter has acted with maturity and restraint.

Certainly not Lynette Gaymon, the geometry teacher who likened the Romney apparel to a “KKK shirt” and told Pawlucy to leave her classroom to change clothes. At the very least, Gaymon should’ve counted to 10 before getting into a political spat with a teenager. At the worst, she may have abused her power by bullying a student. If that’s the case, she doesn’t deserve to be a teacher anymore.

Maybe not Pawlucy’s dad, Richard, who understandably complained to school officials—but who also blanketed the media with complaints about his daughter’s treatment. He might’ve told Samantha that she needs to toughen up a little bit: If you express your politics in public, other people who disagree with you will push back. Instead, his complaint appears to stem partly from the fact that Gaymon expressed a different viewpoint from his daughter’s. Gaymon “is being political,” he told the Inquirer’s Karen Heller. “She is taking a side. She wants these students to support her point of view.” That, of course, is also what his daughter was doing. The First Amendment swings both ways.

Definitely not the students who heckled Samantha Pawlucy’s parents, raising tensions even further.

And especially not psychopaths who called the home where Gaymon lives with her aunts, leaving death threats filled (the Inquirer said) with “racial slurs and profanities.”

If you’re keeping score, the reaction to one high schooler’s pink political shirt has ranged from overwrought to downright evil. Clearly, this isn’t The West Wing—though for once, we could’ve benefited dearly from Aaron Sorkin’s example. After all, what nobody seems to have done is ask Pawlucy: “Why do you support Romney? What positions does he take that you like? Why don’t you like Obama?” Nobody appears to have tried to engage in civil, spirited, rational debate. Instead, the name-calling began at once.

Which again, is perhaps great training for the actual adult world of politics. But it also makes you wonder about the continued American capacity for citizen self-governance. If a 16-year-old girl can’t wear a T-shirt to school without it becoming a flashpoint in our national culture wars, maybe we’re sunk.

So here’s hoping that Pawlucy is welcomed back to school with open arms from teachers and fellow students. Let’s hope she wears her Romney shirt again, even. And let’s hope that next time, adults and students engage her in vigorous—but respectful—debate. Mostly, though, let’s hope the adults start acting like adults.