Counting to ten isn’t going to help today. Maybe counting to ten thousand. I’m not sure about that either.
We are affected by that which is close to us. That which we identify with. That in which we see ourselves. It’s just the way it is, which is why I struggle to get more people to care about autism and the needs and rights of those living with special needs and disabilities.
We know this life inside and out. And so my younger two kids know autism because their oldest brother is autistic. They’ve had enough conversations with me, their brother and dad about autism, respect, dignity, inclusion, challenges, struggles, what is fair and unfair to last a lifetime. And yet, we’ll still keep talking to them.
But today I discovered I’ve been grossly remiss in one very important aspect of their upbringing: Growing up brown, growing up Muslim. Maybe it’s because they’re second-generation American (I was born here, they were born here). Maybe it’s because I went through public schools my entire life all the way to university.
Maybe it’s because my childhood was in the Midwest in a community that was 98 percent Caucasian, and I and my brothers were the only Muslim kids in all of our city’s schools (outside of my best friend, but she moved away in seventh grade) – and we didn’t really feel that discriminated against or targeted (despite this being the ‘80s/’90s AND the first Gulf War AND living near a major air force base AND our last name being Husain).
But you’d think in all my years of covering Muslims in America, in covering incidents of Islamophobia, about how the Muslim narrative has evolved (and been manipulated) since 9/11, which coincided with my having children – I’d be wiser.
But I wasn’t. I was naive. I thought the very basic discussions we have had with our kids about being brown, Muslim and American was the right mix of information without scaring them.
Clearly I’ve made a big parenting blunder.
As most everyone in the circles I travel know, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed in Irving, Texas (in Dallas County), a young man of Sudanese origin, was arrested Monday for bringing a clock that he had made to school to show his teachers, because the police dubbed the clock a “hoax bomb.” According to the Dallas News, the young teen, who loved the robotics club in middle school, was trying to find a similar niche in his first few weeks of high school:
Ahmed’s clock was hardly his most elaborate creation. He said he threw it together in about 20 minutes before bedtime on Sunday: a circuit board and power supply wired to a digital display, all strapped inside a case with a tiger hologram on the front.
He showed it to his engineering teacher first thing Monday morning and didn’t get quite the reaction he’d hoped for.
“He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’” Ahmed said. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’”
He kept the clock inside his school bag in English class, but the teacher complained when the alarm beeped in the middle of a lesson. Ahmed brought his invention up to show her afterward.
“She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.
“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’”
The teacher kept the clock. When the principal and a police officer pulled Ahmed out of sixth period, he suspected he wouldn’t get it back.
They led Ahmed into a room where four other police officers waited. He said an officer he’d never seen before leaned back in his chair and remarked: “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.”
Ahmed felt suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name.
Maybe he believes that. Maybe it’s just words. Maybe he really believes that what happened had to happen for the safety of the school. For the sake of being vigilant and careful.
And listen, I get it. I get that schools have to be vigilant. Thousands upon thousands of schools have scanners that kids walk through to make sure guns aren’t brought in. I have to be buzzed in and show my ID before picking up any one of my three kids. I get and appreciate the responsibility (most) schools try and take for our kids’ safety, especially with the past several years of school shooting tragedies.
But this? Come on. He took the device straight to his teacher. Said it was a clock. Said it multiple times. There were many ways to handle this. Handcuffs though? Prosecuting him? Questioning him without his parents? What rule did he break?
I really do appreciate the enormous responsibility schools have for our kids’ safety. But help me out here. This seems out of hand. This kid. His name.
My kid(s) in middle school, elementary school and high school. Their names.
And while thousands around the country are rallying to Ahmed’s defense (Muslims, people who are not Muslims, scientists, engineers, techies, celebrities, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – just check out the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, it’s pretty heartwarming and awesome), I’m still left with this parenting dilemma:
How do I inform and educate my children on growing up brown and growing up Muslim in today’s climate, how do I prepare them and teach them to be smart and careful while not stifling their creativity, not stifling their dreams and goals, not stifling their normal, natural, youthful belief that they have as much rights and opportunities to succeed as the kid sitting next to them in school? How do others who are black have these same and different conversations?
How many of my friends have kids who are interested in science, math and technology, who join robotics teams, go to Mad Scientist camps in elementary school and participate in competitive math and science fairs in school? Who bring their projects to school as part of assignments and just because – to get help from teachers, to even show off? Who work on side projects at home and want to seek help from their teachers?
My daughter is a 12-year-old seventh grader in an IB program in our public school system. She has a diverse group of friends and is part of a much more diverse student body then I was growing up. But she hears things in the hallway. Sometimes teachers formulate lesson plans that inadvertently paint Muslims and other minorities in a negative light.
I’m teaching her to listen and be strong. To tell me what’s going on. To be friendly and trustful but also be smart. I want her to believe in herself. Be careful, but be bold. But I think that’s not enough. I intend to ask her if she heard about Ahmed Mohamed in school or from her friends today when she comes home from school. And then we’re going to talk. I may ask her to read this.
I don’t know what I’ll say, but we will stumble through it together.