Tolerance fails T-shirt test
By John Kass | Chicago Tribune Columnist
12:12 PM EST, November 13, 2008
Catherine Vogt, 14, conducted an experiment in political tolerance at her Oak Park middle school and learned some valuable lessons. (Tribune photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo / November 12, 2008)
As the media keeps gushing on about how America has finally adopted tolerance as the great virtue, and that we're all united now, let's consider the Brave Catherine Vogt Experiment.
Catherine Vogt, 14, is an Illinois 8th grader, the daughter of a liberal mom and a conservative dad. She wanted to conduct an experiment in political tolerance and diversity of opinion at her school in the liberal suburb of Oak Park.
She noticed that fellow students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president. His campaign kept preaching "inclusion," and she decided to see how included she could be.
So just before the election, Catherine consulted with her history teacher, then bravely wore a unique T-shirt to school and recorded the comments of teachers and students in her journal. The T-shirt bore the simple yet quite subversive words drawn with a red marker:
"I was just really curious how they'd react to something that different, because a lot of people at my school wore Obama shirts and they are big Obama supporters," Catherine told us. "I just really wanted to see what their reaction would be."
Immediately, Catherine learned she was stupid for wearing a shirt with Republican John McCain's name. Not merely stupid. Very stupid.
"People were upset. But they started saying things, calling me very stupid, telling me my shirt was stupid and I shouldn't be wearing it," Catherine said.
Then it got worse.
"One person told me to go die. It was a lot of dying. A lot of comments about how I should be killed," Catherine said, of the tolerance in Oak Park.
But students weren't the only ones surprised that she wore a shirt supporting McCain.
"In one class, I had one teacher say she will not judge me for my choice, but that she was surprised that I supported McCain," Catherine said.
If Catherine was shocked by such passive-aggressive threats from instructors, just wait until she goes to college.
"Later, that teacher found out about the experiment and said she was embarrassed because she knew I was writing down what she said," Catherine said.
One student suggested that she be put up on a cross for her political beliefs.
"He said, 'You should be crucifixed.' It was kind of funny because, I was like, don't you mean 'crucified?' " Catherine said.
Other entries in her notebook involved suggestions by classmates that she be "burned with her shirt on" for "being a filthy-rich Republican."
Some said that because she supported McCain, by extension she supported a plan by deranged skinheads to kill Obama before the election. And I thought such politicized logic was confined to American newsrooms. Yet Catherine refused to argue with her peers. She didn't want to jeopardize her experiment.
"I couldn't show people really what it was for. I really kind of wanted to laugh because they had no idea what I was doing," she said.
Only a few times did anyone say anything remotely positive about her McCain shirt. One girl pulled her aside in a corner, out of earshot of other students, and whispered, "I really like your shirt."
That's when you know America is truly supportive of diversity of opinion, when children must whisper for fear of being ostracized, heckled and crucifixed.
The next day, in part 2 of The Brave Catherine Vogt Experiment, she wore another T-shirt, this one with "Obama Girl" written in blue. And an amazing thing happened.
Catherine wasn't very stupid anymore. She grew brains.
"People liked my shirt. They said things like my brain had come back, and I had put the right shirt on today," Catherine said.
Some students accused her of playing both sides.
"A lot of people liked it. But some people told me I was a flip-flopper," she said. "They said, 'You can't make up your mind. You can't wear a McCain shirt one day and an Obama shirt the next day.' "
But she sure did, and she turned her journal into a report for her history teacher, earning Catherine extra credit. We asked the teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, whether it was ironic that Catherine would be subject to such intolerance from pro-Obama supporters in a community that prides itself on its liberal outlook.
"That's what we discussed," Cassin-Pountney said about the debate in the classroom when the experiment was revealed. "I said, here you are, promoting this person [Obama] that believes we are all equal and included, and look what you've done? The students were kind of like, 'Oh, yeah.' I think they got it."
Catherine never told us which candidate she would have voted for if she weren't an 8th grader. But she said she learned what it was like to be in the minority.
"Just being on the outside, how it felt, it was not fun at all," she said.
Don't ever feel as if you must conform, Catherine. Being on the outside isn't so bad. Trust me.