Karen Heller: Romney T-shirt episode offers 'teachable moment' - for parents and teachers

What happened to Samantha Pawlucy, also known as Romney Girl, most likely feeds into every conservative Pennsylvanian's perception of our city as a cesspool of Democratic liberals.

At her public school a week ago Friday, the Port Richmond sophomore says she was dissed on dress-down day because she had the temerity to wear a Romney/Ryan T-shirt, embracing the minority group our city least tolerates: Republicans.

Samantha Pawlucy, in the Romney/Ryan T-shirt she wore to her "Democratic" school, with her dad, Richard.

Geometry teacher Lynette Gaymon told Samantha that Charles Carroll High - a model of diversity with an enrollment that's one-third black, one-third white, and a third Latino - was a "Democratic" school.

In Philadelphia, registered Democrats outnumber voters in the Republican/Philadelphia Parking Authority Party 6-1. You could reasonably argue that every city academic institution is a Democratic school, even one like Carroll, named for a rich aristocratic Federalist.

Gaymon also likened wearing the pink Romney/Ryan shirt in a Democratic school to the teacher's sporting a Ku Klux Klan top.

I'm sorry to inform you, though you probably have guessed, that Samantha, 16, is white and Gaymon, 29, is black. The Pawlucys are talking. Gaymon and the teachers' union, so far, are not. In a meeting at the school, Gaymon apologized and contended she was joking. The family has failed to appreciate the humor.

"How can you be ignorant and be a teacher?" Samantha's father, Richard, told me. "She is being political. She is taking a side. She wants these students to support her point of view."

Pawlucy didn't attend school last week out of fear, contending that she has been the subject of racist taunts. On Friday, students spewed obscenities at her parents as they stood outside the school after another meeting with officials. Gaymon was not present.

Now we have a tempest in a T-shirt that touches on politics, race, and bullying. (Although not inappropriate teacher-pupil consorting, which appears to be the top varsity sport at Runnemede's Triton Regional High School.)

Consider the reaction of Republican legislators in Harrisburg, who control almost half the district's annual funding. Yes, they must think, those Philadelphians sure are a bunch of ungrateful, GOP-hating, obscenity-spewing, race-obsessed miscreants.

The only silver lining is that the budget won't be debated until spring. By that time, perhaps Republicans - the same ones who attempted to disenfranchise Philadelphia through voter ID - will have forgotten this mess.

Also, they will give every resident a puppy, and peace will reign throughout the land.

Many years and several election cycles ago, I spoke to my son's class in a different Philadelphia school about how the country was getting a new president that month, George W. Bush. Many students - first graders, mind you - booed. No, I reminded them, there are children here whose families are Republican. (See, there's more political diversity than people believe.) The children were bewildered, as if I'd mentioned the existence of dinosaurs in their midst. Which launched a far more interesting conversation than had I simply explained the inauguration.

The T-shirt episode provides a great opportunity for Carroll High, and other schools, to have a conversation about political differences and respecting the views of others. It could be one of those "teachable moments" - for parents and teachers.

Richard Pawlucy tells me he has never voted before, which makes him an improbable participant in a political fight. A field engineer raised in Port Richmond, he registered only a few weeks ago.

"If I had voted the last time, I would have voted for Obama. I was really pumped up for him," he told me. Why didn't he? "Like a lot of people, I didn't vote because I knew he was going to win." His mother is "a big Obama supporter. She likes him because she thinks he's handsome and speaks really well."

Pawlucy made up his mind last week. He's voting for Mitt Romney. "I've never made less money than I had before. I've got four kids. After I saw the debate, I saw that Romney has an actual plan."

Also, "this incident solidified my decision. I never thought this would directly come to my house," he says. "Now, I have a 'Liberty or Death' sign at my house. I'm a believer in the First and Second Amendments, and I believe they're both at risk. Romney will uphold and defend them."

The school incident is still under investigation. Samantha returns to class Tuesday. The school has assured the family that the students would not harass her. In the meantime, Samantha updated her Facebook status with an "(R)."


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.