I’m Ahmed. Except I’m Not Brown.

I’m disgusted by this story, reported by the Dallas Morning News tonight. A 14-year-old high school freshman named Ahmed Mohamed…

Do I need to fill in the details? I’m outraged about a story involving a kid named Ahmed Mohamed. Can you live in America today and not already understand the basic shape of what happened at his school?

He’s a kid with a keen interest in engineering. He made a simple digital clock at home and brought it to school so he could show it off to one of his teachers. After a different teacher subsequently saw it and thought it looked like a bomb, the school administration called the police and Ahmed was led out of the school in handcuffs in full view of the student body.

I recognized this kid immediately. This was me when I was in public school. Even in sixth grade, my classroom cubby contained a lunchbox filled with batteries, wires, and random circuits. In later years, I had technical manuals and printouts filled with arcane symbols that I knew were 6502 assembler opcodes but could have been coded German Army ENIGMA signals for all my teachers knew. I might have had the components of busted floppy drives in my bookbag. During a frustrated, failure-filled period when I was trying to master photographic printmaking, my bookbag might have contained brown bottles filled with stinky chemicals.

I twisted doorknobs and walked into unlocked, dark rooms. On one occasion, this led to my discovering a long-disused DEC minicomputer.

Then there was the time I looked at my locker combination dial and realized that it was a total sham. The little paper sticker told me that the first number in my combination was “17.” But…this is a crappy little lock. Can’t I be off by one or two, and it’ll still be good? Fast-forward through a period of theories and experiments and trial and error, and I’d figured out how to determine the combination through guesswork.

My hobby was breaking the copy protection on commercial games; yes, technically, theft. The knowledge I gained in this pursuit allowed me to create my own heavily-patched (but innocent) version of Apple DOS, which was running on all of the computer lab’s Apple //es without anybody’s knowledge. Yes, technically, distributing malware.

All of these stories come across as Charming and Nostalgic tales of a nerdy little kid on his way to a predestined career in science, math, or technology. There was never any negative fallout. Yes, partly because it was more than a decade before 9/11.

But they’re happy stories mostly because I was a white Catholic kid named Andy Ihnatko. Not a brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed, and not a black kid named anything.

My stories about being a nerdy schoolkid all have good endings. My teachers took all of these things as signs that I had a lot of potential — it helped that I was not just white, but a white boy — and they responded by supporting and encouraging me.

More than that, they trusted me. They let me take broken computer hardware home so I could learn engineering by trying to fix it. They gave me the key to the school darkroom. They let me stay after school and mess with that minicomputer. Even when I proudly (and naively!) told a teacher that I had, in effect, worked out how to break into anybody’s locker, the only person she reported me to was a fellow student a few weeks later. He’d forgotten his locker combination and she figured I could get it open for him faster than the custodian.

If I had been a black kid? No way. I can’t imagine that the teachers of a white, white, white suburban Boston high school would have patted me on the head for all of that. Opening unlocked doors would have been taken as breaking and entering. If I told them that I’d put in a lot of time to decipher the mechanical workings of a common school lock and how to exploit its weaknesses, they’d have assumed the only reason I’d have gone to all of that trouble was because I planned to steal stuff, not because I was intellectually excited by an intriguing puzzle.

Most of these stories would have ended with me being forbidden to use school computers ever again and losing other privileges. At worst, sure, maybe I would have been sent down to a special separate school for kids with disciplinary problems; essentially, a lockup for kids deemed to have no future anyway.

Ahmed says in the article that he wanted his engineering teacher to see what he’d made so that he could make a good impression here at the start of the school year, and show off what he could do. It should have resulted in him receiving the same kind of positive attention that I did, back in the 80s.

But again: brown kid named “Ahmed.” And lest I come across as a Northeastern idiot smugly complaining about how things work in Texas: this is how things work in America. Not any one region.

Ahmed has been suspended. Is he in a school system with one of those idiotic “zero tolerance” disciplinary cultures? The kind that absolves the administration of any responsibility for what they do to kids?

I hope not. This is the sort of system that just tosses kids into the input hopper of a machine designed to be operated by unskilled and mindless laborers. He brought a device to school; the administration imagined that it could be construed as a hoax bomb; therefore, it is a weapon; and now, zero-tolerance demands that he be suspended and then expelled oh gosh well it’s not me destroying the kid’s life I honestly wish I had another option gee my hands are just completely tied okay anyway moving on let’s talk about this terrific season our Wildcats are having this year…

It infuriates me. Ahmed’s been suspended. I imagine that’s on his record. Is it on his record as “violation of school anti-weapon policy” or is it on there as “our administrators made a colossal error and nobody had the strength of character to take responsibility for that error”?

My worry is that the administration will want to find a fast solution that helps them to duck blame. That they’ll offer Ahmed and his family the choice between suspension for the rest of the school year, which they can contest over a period of several months through expensive arbitration, or Ahmed can admit that He Done Wrong and he’ll be back in class at the end of the week. See the kid admitted he was wrong just as we said he was so we’re sure you’ll agree that there’s honestly no story here we’re here to ensure the safety and security of our campus and it speaks well of us that we were willing to give this poor troubled kid a second chance now how about you go and write about a real story like the successful bake sale to support our French club’s trip to the Lafayette museum…

Previous news stories about similarly-idiotic incidents of school discipline have, at the time, gotten me thinking about how I’d handle a situation like that as a parent. What should I do? How could I stand to allow a serious suspension to appear on my child’s school disciplinary record, to be seen by future college admissions boards? Do I fight it to the end? But that’s my kid on the battlefield. Should I try to resolve this as quickly as I can, to allow the kid to return to something akin to a normal school year?

But Ahmed can’t, can he? He started the school year as a brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed, which in many (if not most) schools brings enough unfair trouble. He’s now the brown kid named Ahmed Mohamed who was taken out of the school in handcuffs by police and was brought to juvenile hall, where he was fingerprinted and interrogated at length before being released to his parents.

I’m angry, and I’m a little upset with myself because I want to be useful. 

I suppose one useful thing I can do is write and post this. I hope his family sees the words of everybody who’s lining up to support Ahmed tonight.

Ahmed, you are a great kid. And the world is so much bigger than the town you’re in, and idiots are not entitled to define who you are. 

Smart people aren’t entitled to do that, either. Only you get to define who you are. You do that through your choices in life. From what I’ve read in that article, you’ve been making some terrific choices. You’ve defined yourself as the kind of person that I instinctively like, and I can see you continuing to be downright awesome.

Keep on building and making and learning and be proud of the things you build and make and learn. You live in a country that tries to pour sand in someone’s gears if they’re not a white dude. But there are plenty of places and communities where your curiosity, your industry, and your Ahmed-ness will be applauded and appreciated.

You are your own greatest build project, Ahmed, and you have nothing to worry about on that front because you have the soul of a terrific engineer.

Update:

I said this when Obama came out in support of marriage equality and I said it when Bin Laden was taken down and I’m saying it a third time now:

This is the BEST season of “The West Wing” EVER!!!!!!

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