It was a small act of defiance: Dozens of eighth-grade students from South Orange Middle School in New Jersey declining to pose for photographs with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) during a trip to Washington.
But by opting out of the photo session in front of the Capitol last month, the students made national headlines. Many commended them for standing their ground and politely asserting their political viewpoints.
Others denounced the students’ behavior, saying they disrespected Ryan by refusing to do something as simple as appear in a photo with him. Several people commenting on news stories and social media posts called the students “disgraceful” while others argued they were “indoctrinated” by their parents.
Some used stronger words, taking to Ryan’s Instagram post to call the students “losers” and “sniveling little brats.” (Ryan had posted a picture on Instagram giving a fist-bump to one of the students who appeared in the photo).
“It’s a shame our country is coming to this,” one person commented on the Instagram post. “8th graders can’t even respect our elected officials.”
Another individual wrote: “Few of these kids are actively engaged enough to name one piece of legislation they have specific disagreements with and instead parrot their parents’ and teachers’ talking points.”
“How did those 8th graders get so brainwashed to understand the politics of today and decide who is villain,” said another. “I suggest this is the work of the teachers … useful idiots that they are.”
Many of the students fired back on social media, defending themselves and making clear to the critics they are more than capable of forming their own ideas.
One eighth-grade girl, Jordan McCray-Robinson, went as far as reaching out to her local suburb’s news website, the Village Green. She asked whether it would publish a story interviewing the students to “show that they were well-informed,” Village Green co-founder Mary Barr Mann told The Washington Post.
“We suggested that it would be more powerful if she wrote it,” Mann said.
So Jordan did just that. In her detailed opinion article published Monday in the Village Green, Jordan addressed those who criticized her and her fellow classmates for opting out of the photo.
“I am here to tell the nation that although we’re only in the 8th grade, we have our own thoughts and opinions,” Jordan wrote. “My teachers did not influence my decision not to take a picture with Mr. Ryan. I decided I didn’t want to take a picture with someone who doesn’t have my best interests in mind. Mr. Ryan and the administration want to cut health care for 23 million people. Am I one of those U.S. citizens that will be affected?”
Jordan wrote that she chose not to take the photo because “I wasn’t going to be used as a publicity stunt.”
As the criticism poured in on Instagram, Jordan stood up for her classmates, writing in the comments that “even though we’re 13-14 year olds we decided by ourselves” to step out of the picture.
“I know what Paul Ryan stands for and I’m not going to take a picture with him,” Jordan said. “Kids know a lot and you should stop being close minded and see that too.”
And in her opinion article, she went beyond simply explaining her reasoning. Jordan cited interviews she conducted with a teacher, who weighed in on the criticism, saying, “In my classroom alone, I have seen students provide different, conflicting opinions when it comes to debates and discussions.” She included testimonies from a member of the “LGBTQ+ community,” as well as an African American male student who chose to pose with Ryan, “not necessarily because of his views but because of the power of his job.”
“Students couldn’t escape criticism on the Internet whether they decided to take the picture or not,” Jordan wrote, adding that many people “mistakenly assumed that everyone in the picture supported Paul Ryan and the administration.”
Jordan said she thought it was “ridiculous,” “rude” and “ignorant” for an adult to tell 14-year-old students they should not express an opinion because they have not experienced “the real world.”
“Excuse me?! If I’m not in the ‘real world,’ where am I?” Jordan wrote. “I have the same right to express myself as everyone else in this country. Why shouldn’t I be able to show how I feel about what the current administration has been doing?”
She said she refuses to support a politician who stands behind a president who “wants to ban Muslims from the country because they worship differently.”
“I respect views and opinions that differ from mine and I expect the same when it comes to my opinion,” Jordan wrote, closing her piece. “I will not tolerate my peers and I being shamed for voicing our opinions. My generation is the future. I will be working and living in a society created by today’s decisions. So why shouldn’t I be able to speak my truth?”