I am Ahmed.
Well, not really. But kind of.
By now, most likely everyone has heard the story of the 14-year-old Texas boy—brown-skinned, Muslim, last name Mohamed—who was arrested, fingerprinted, and interrogated on suspicion of bringing a bomb to school. It was, in fact, a homemade clock. (When my 6th grader first heard the story, he asked me, “What was there that could ignite? Do his teachers and principal know how circuits work?)
Some in the media and online have tried to reframe the incident as yet another example of anti-intellectualism, wherein an ostracized, gifted child is being persecuted because of his intelligence. Ahmed Mohamed may be a very bright boy, but let’s not kid ourselves. This was not a response to his presumably high IQ and/or fellow students allegedly feeling threatened by it. This was a response to the color of his skin and his last name.
I moved to the US from the former USSR when I was 7 years old. This was 1977, with the Cold War still simmering. My last name was Sivorinovsky. My parents spoke English with an accent. I didn’t know what Barbie dolls were or that sandwiches were supposed to have two slices of bread, one on top, one on the bottom. The other kids called me a Communist.
Who would have guessed that elementary school children lack the sophistication to parse the nuances between a refugee from a given country, and a supporter of that country’s policies?
Looking back on my elementary school teasing (and there was a lot of it), I don’t blame the kids. When every bad guy on TV and in the movies has a Slavic accent, from Rosa Klebb and Ivan Drago to Boris and Natasha, what were they supposed to think? Every kid who is different in any way (and what kid isn’t?) gets picked on for something. I’m sure if it wasn’t my Russian-ness, it would have been my red hair.
But teachers are supposed to know better. Obviously, they aren’t there at every moment of the day (nor should they be) and can’t police all teasing. But they should make an effort to keep it to a minimum. They should be able to explain—in an age-appropriate manner—the difference between being a Soviet refugee and being a Communist, between being a Muslim and being a terrorist. And they should be able to recognize a clock when they see one.
Furthermore, the police, who, presumably, deal regularly with incendiary devices (well, at least more regularly than teachers and principals) should definitely have been able to recognize Ahmed’s science project for what it was.
Naturally, a lot of blame is currently being passed around. The teachers are claiming they are obligated to report anything they suspect of being dangerous—whether they know it for a fact or not (remember, it’s “If you see something, say something,” not “If you see something, take a moment to think about what you’re seeing”)—to the principal. The principal is claiming he was obligated to suspend Ahmed due to their Zero Tolerance policy, and the cops are claiming they were obligated to bring Ahmed to the station for questioning once the principal made the call.
What seems most clear is that very few people were looking at the clock in question. They were all too busy looking suspiciously at the boy.
My middle child got a 3D printer for his 12th birthday. He printed a dagger. (As an example of what nerds we are, when he showed it, separately, to both my husband and I, we independently responded with, “Is that a dagger I see before me?”) It is a very colorful dagger. It is a very pointy dagger.
My African American husband has made it very clear to our biracial son that this very colorful, very pointy dagger will not be leaving the house.
My son is also a bright boy. As is my husband. But, as my husband says, “When I’m running for a bus, and the cops see a Black man running, they don’t know that I went to MIT. All they know is that a Black man running must be up to no good. So they stop me.”
We want to eliminate the possibility of the police stopping our son as he is running to school or dance class (oooh! threatening ballet shoes!) and finding a dagger in his backpack. They won’t care that it’s plastic. They won’t care that my son qualified for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth at the highest level. They’ll see a brown-skinned boy with a weapon. And they’ll do whatever they feel they have a right to.
I am Ahmed.
And I am Ahmed’s mother, too.