Among the 120 or so columns I wrote in 2016, the two that generated the most, and the most heated, reactions were both about South Jersey teenagers refusing to abandon their principles.

So I'm pleased to provide this Happy New Year update: Transgender high school student Mason Catrambone, 14, and 13-year-old middle schooler Manny Martinez - who sits silently in class during the Pledge of Allegiance - are holding fast, hanging in, and doing well. Both also have changed schools.

"I'm back on track after coming out and all the publicity," Mason says by phone from his family's Monroe Township home. "Living life as I've always wanted to - that's what I'm trying to do."

Manny, who lives in Vineland, vows to continue to "fight and express my right" to peaceful, respectful dissent. "I'll be doing this for the rest of my school years," he says.

When I first met and interviewed Mason in early September and Manny at the beginning of December, I came away impressed by their intelligence, sincerity, and clarity. Their youthful, idealistic convictions had led them to take deeply personal stands on contentious public issues, which abruptly turned the two otherwise ordinary South Jersey youngsters into public figures.

Some online comments were supportive. But many were not.

The notion that a teenager would come out as a female-to-male transgendered person, and then want to attend a Catholic school, struck some people as preposterous or worse. And a young person of color protesting Donald Trump's election by sitting out the Pledge - a protected choice we all enjoy - enraged some and seemed even to unhinge others.

"People just didn't get it. They were too busy being critical of a 13-year-old who's got a mind," says Manny's mother, Loretta Evans.

She and her son say that while students at Wallace Middle School backed him for sitting in silence as others throughout the school stood for the internally televised daily flag salute, a small number of employees, including a teacher or two, made their displeasure known.

District and school administration officials publicly said Manny's rights would be respected, but Evans says the situation remained difficult. She has since pulled her son out of classes at Wallace and enrolled him elsewhere.

So far, she says, so good.

"This is a kid who's not out there doing bad things," adds Evans. "He's into politics, into the world of issues. He's into history, and he's finding his way."

Mason came out to his parents as transgender last spring, a couple of months after he was accepted, as Madelyn, into Camden Catholic High School's Class of 2020. After revealing that his identity is in transition, he was told that an openly transgender student would not conform with the school's own identity - that of a Catholic institution.

So Mason and his parents, Frank Catrambone and Annmarie Kita, opted for an online learning program. By December, Catrambone says, it was clear that cyberschool was, quite literally, no place for Mason.

"Loneliness, the lack of interaction with people, and missing his friends came into play," Cantrambone says.

After discussions with officials at Williamstown High School, where administrators and others "were just incredible," Frank says, Mason started classes Dec. 19.

"At first I was borderline terrified," says Mason, who went through the township's elementary and middle schools as Madelyn.

"But people are meeting me as Mason for the first time. Which is really cool, because Mason is who I really am."

He's also been bonding with other trans kids who attend a monthly support meeting in Marlton, where some group members have read the column about him.

As for some of the less-than-charitable online comments, "I totally expected reactions like that," Mason says.

"Those people seem to think they're going to have some sort of impact on how I feel. But I'm in a whole new head space. I feel comfortable."

Likewise, Loretta Evans sees her son growing from his experience.

"This could be the biggest lesson he will ever get," she says. "He's going to be so much better because of it. I know that whatever he is going to do, he's going to be successful."

@inqkriordan

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