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The message Ahmed Mohamed’s school just sent: creativity isn’t for Muslim kids

Ahmed Mohamed greets his online supporters with a peace sign
Ahmed Mohamed greets his online supporters with a peace sign
Ahmed Mohamed

On Sunday evening, Ahmed Mohamed decided to make a clock. It was far from the most ambitious home engineering project he had ever attempted, the ninth-grader later told the Dallas Morning News — he threw it together in about 20 minutes from materials he had in his bedroom. But this project was for a special purpose: Ahmed had started high school a few weeks before, and he hoped the clock would help him find his niche there. In other words, the clock wasn’t just a clock — it was the opening line of a conversation in the universal language of engineers.

"Look, I built something," it said. "Want to build more stuff together?"

Unfortunately for Ahmed, his school didn’t speak engineer. His engineering teacher said the clock was "nice," but advised him not to show it to anyone else. And when his English teacher saw the clock in Ahmed’s bag, she called the principal — who called the police. To school officials, a Muslim student with a homemade clock wasn’t a potential recruit for a science club or math team — he was a potential terrorist with a device that looked like bomb.

And so instead of the clock leading Ahmed to a tribe of fellow makers, as he’d hoped, it led him to a juvenile detention center where he was fingerprinted and threatened with charges of making a "hoax bomb."

To be absolutely clear: This wasn’t a bomb, or a hoax of any kind. It was a clock. The school knows this. The local police know this. Ahmed Mohamed has consistently explained to anyone who will listen that it is not, in fact, a bomb. And yet the school suspended Ahmed for three days and sent a letter to parents suggesting that Ahmed might have violated a "code of conduct" by making a "suspicious device." And the police took until Wednesday to decide not to charge him with a crime, arguing at first that he had failed to provide them with a "broader explanation" for why he made the clock and took it to school.

It’s tempting to respond that the only "explanation" needed for clocks is that they provide the helpful service of telling time. And perhaps to add that if the Irving, Texas, PD had access to such a device, it would have tipped them off that they’re living in the 21st century, and that their reaction to both basic technology and the existence of Muslim Americans is therefore appallingly out of date.

But the saddest part of this story is that there actually is a broader explanation here. Ahmed made the clock because he was experiencing something rare and exciting for a 14-year-old: a sense of ownership over a project, and a passion for finding out how far that could go. In his father's words, the 14-year-old "just wants to invent good things for mankind."

That is one of the great feelings in life, and to discover it so young is an incredible gift. That kind of passion is what transforms education from a boring chore into an exciting exploration. It is the difference between experiencing physics class as a series of boring problems on a page and as a decoder ring for the mechanics of the world. It is the difference between passively consuming technology and wielding it to solve problems, to bend the world to your will. It should be what every school dreams of encountering in its students.

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I recognize that feeling. The town where I grew up is home to one of the best engineering schools in the world, and I grew up surrounded by scientists and engineers. My childhood was full of cloud chambers and circuit boards (we called them "bread boards" for reasons I can’t remember). My house, like Ahmed’s, had boxes of spare wiring and diodes and switches lying around, lest anyone felt an urge to see what they could do with some copper wiring on a rainy afternoon. And I can’t even count the number of times I saw someone, with an excited glint in her eye, say something like, "Well, we could try…" and sketch inscrutable diagrams on the nearest napkin.

Today, those napkin scribblers are researchers at universities like MIT, or for companies like Apple and Google. Some of their work saves lives, and some of it makes your latest smartphone a bit more fun to play around with, but all of it contributes something of value.

Even I, a traitor to my community who became a journalist, still benefited from that environment. It mattered that I was surrounded by people who looked at problems and thought, "What if?" It mattered that I had teachers and parents and peers who encouraged such thinking, and who showed me its possibilities. It mattered that I got the message that building new things was so exciting that it was worth the risk of failing in the attempt. That message stuck with me, and it continues to enrich my life to this day.

Ahmed Mohamed’s school and community sent him a very different message. They showed him that his passion and creativity are to be feared rather than embraced — that such things are not for young Muslim boys who share a surname with the Prophet Mohammed.

Mohamed, rather than finding a community of people who would share "what ifs" and napkin scribbles with him, was punished by his own school for trying to make something new and share it with others. That school suspended him for three days because their bigotry made them afraid of a child’s home science project. And the police arrested him, fingerprinted him, and threatened to charge him with a crime because, to them, his Muslim faith meant that there must be some nefarious "broader explanation" for his cheerful tinkering.

That is appalling. Not just for the obvious reason that this country needs all the innovators and makers and creators it can get — that those people are the ones will bring us the next cool scrolly iPhone display, and new cures for disease, and, I hope, hoverboards. It's appalling because cutting someone off from the joy of being creative is just a terrible thing to do to a child. It will make that child's world worse forever.

How many other Muslim kids will hear about this and decide that making things isn’t for them? How many Muslim parents will read about Ahmed and decide not to buy their children those circuit boards, not to encourage them to see the world as a series of problems to overcome, lest they too get a call one day from the police?

And if they do, who can blame them?

That is why, to me, the saddest part of Ahmed's story was this line, from the Dallas Morning News: "He’s vowed never to take an invention to school again."

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