Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School student Catherine Vogt expected she’d get some strong comments from classmates after wearing a John McCain T-shirt to school the week before the presidential election. But she didn’t expect how strong.
“I got stares. Some called me stupid and asked how could I wear that shirt. And one person said I should be burned and that my shirt should be burned,” the eighth-grader said.
Only Catherine’s teacher and parents knew about her experiment, an extra-credit assignment for which she wore a Barack Obama T-shirt to Brooks the next day. The 14-year-old wanted to see how classmates reacted when students do things differently than others.
Catherine chooses not to express her political views, saying that could cause chaos. She did say that Obama is popular among middle school students and that, if there are McCain supporters at Brooks, they keep mostly quiet.
“We’re taught that it’s OK to express yourself, but it’s also kind of not OK because of peer pressure-and some are afraid to lose all their friends for speaking out,” said Catherine, who described other reactions.
A lot of her friends just joked with her and otherwise didn’t care what shirt she wore. She received comments from mostly students, though a few teachers said they wouldn’t judge her for sporting the Republican presidential candidate’s image. One teacher liked the shirt, Catherine said, while another told her that for standing up and voicing her opinion she reminded them of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the conservative host of The View.
One student said they couldn’t be friends anymore because of her wearing the McCain shirt. When she wore the Obama shirt, the same student said they couldn’t be friends because she couldn’t make up her mind.
Catherine learned later that she had become the talk of the school. Some weren’t surprised, thinking she was a McCain supporter all along, but others assumed she was backing the Democratic presidential candidate and were equally shocked.
Catherine is a peer tutor at Brooks and when she walked into the tutoring class, she said the other students stopped listening to the teacher and just stared at her. When she left, they started chanting, “Obama, Obama!”
In one of her regular classes, she sparked a debate among students on who she was supporting. Some wondered if was backing McCain because she’s rich. Catherine said her family is not wealthy and that no one had previously questioned how much money she came from. Some students said flatly that they thought she was rich.
Catherine said her experiment showed the impact peer pressure can have on students. She recalled a few students quietly saying to her “cool shirt,” about her McCain choice.
“It showed that you don’t know a lot about friends. Most of the kids in my grades wore Obama shirts and I don’t see any other kids wearing McCain shirts. Most people are scared to go out and be different,” she said.
One lesson Catherine took away from her experiment: “Peer pressure can take a big toll on your life at school. People might go for the more popular candidate so they won’t be annoyed by comments.”
Her eighth-grade teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, said she encourages her students to think critically about issues affecting them, noting the presidential race this year has had a big impact on students.
“I think it pressed upon her how passionate people are about this race,” she said, adding students don’t necessarily espouse their parents’ political views.
Brooks conducted a mock presidential election two weeks ago, part of a statewide program to bring youth into the political process-Obama came out on top at Brooks. Afterward, Cassin-Pountney talked to her students, asking if they voted how they’re parents would have.
“The kids said, no, we’re making our own decisions,” she said. “They looked at each candidate and their positions on the issues, and had good, solid evidence to support their choices.”