Where’s the “More Perfect Union” for Ahmed Mohamed?

It’s Constitution Day. A day declared by the United States Senate in 2004 to commemorate the adoption of the Constitution. In celebration, my co-teacher Danae Boyd asked us to highlight a phrase that means the most to us from the Preamble and Tweet it out.

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Now, I reflect,  what does it mean to be “more perfect”? What does it mean to be a “union”?

An image of “perfect”  speaks of liberty and peace and compassion but at the center before all of that, there should be safety.

And certainly, the notion of “union” means to be inclusive, resisting the urge to exclude or marginalize others.

Yesterday’s newsfeed was riddled with headlines about Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old freshman at Irving ISD’s MacArthur High School. Dallas’ local ABC affiliate WFAA News 8 reported, Irving ISD student detained for ‘suspicious device’ in reference to Ahmed who brought a clock he had created to show his engineering teacher. When he plugged in his creation during English class, it began making noise. Ahmed was pulled out of class by the campus principal and school resource officer for questioning. The home-engineered clock appeared to them to be a “hoax bomb”, and Ahmed was arrested for the Class A misdemeanor of being in possession at school for what was assumed a fake bomb.

Ahmed Mohamed

Later, yesterday’s Dallas Morning News reported Ahmed Mohamed swept up ‘hoax bomb’ charges swept away as Irving teen’s story floods social media. Ahmed’s story gained international momentum as many cite this incident as a case of racial profiling. Ahmed’s story for many is yet another injustice carried out by officials motivated by what some regard as racial discrimination. It is not, therefore, surprising this incident attracted media attention. The social media campaign #IStandWithAhmed propelled Ahmed’s cause resulting in an invitation to visit the White House from Barack Obama as well as encouraging words to continue his innovating.

As an educator and as a mother of a son attending public school, my initial response to what happened to Ahmed Mohamed is anger and disappointment.

I am so tired of fear driving everything in education.

Fear:
We’re frightened our diverse kids are getting inconsistent instruction.

Response:
Here’s a standardized test to which we must direct most of our resources so every learner can pass.

Fear:
Our students are in danger of being cyber bullied and cyber stalked.

Response:
Let’s implement filters for the internet completely inconsistent with anything they would encounter anywhere else, thereby leaving them without the skills to self-monitor and become a responsible digital citizen.

Fear:
Someone will threaten the safety of our school by building a fake bomb.

Response:
Arrest a student gifted in engineering for doing something challenging and honestly telling several authorities it was a clock.

Don’t get me wrong. I want my students to be safe.

This incident hits very close to home. I work in a district just down the road from Irving ISD. My son attends a school in my district. Two of my older siblings graduated from MacArthur High School, and that would have been my alma mater  had I not attended private school instead. All of this to point out that safety, and safety in this particular context, is very near and dear to my heart.

I want my students to feel like they can attend school without being threatened. I want them to know that school is a place where learning can happen and where they can feel comfortable and secure.

I understand the fear of possible security breaches, but Ahmed explained to them it was a clock. When asked what it was by the English teacher, he said is was a clock. When he was asked by the police, he said it was a clock.

I wasn’t there. I do not presume to know every detail surrounding the event, but I do know this. Part of building a safe environment where people feel like they can take risks, which is necessary for any real learning to occur, is building trust. And when students are being interrogated without representation, when authorities are not believing what their students are telling them without any cause to be suspicious, when students are finally excited to share one of their creations only to be arrested as a result, I know that trust is not happening. I know that Ahmed no longer feels safe and secure. I know there won’t be much learning happening for him in that context. I also know the same is probably true for other students on that campus.

When a school makes choices that divide a community and is not willing to admit wrongdoing or the need to revisit practices, certain members of said community are left feeling excluded.

There’s no union in that. There’s no strength in that.

There’s no perfection in that.

I understand the need to fight such injustices and misconceptions. As an educator, it is my responsibility to set conditions where learners can explore diverse perspectives surrounding pivotal events. I purposefully design projects that teach about real tensions around the world. I invite learners to research and weigh in on meaningful potentially polarizing events. It is crucial to be able to participate in civic discourse similar to what happens on KQED’s Do Now. We need to learn how to interact respectfully, embracing diversity with the common purpose of upholding tolerance. By learning how to engage in such discussions and appreciating different points of view rather than fearing it or silencing it, learners can make progress in addressing significant issues.

Perhaps, Ahmed’s story is an ideal counterpoint to Constitution Day. It’s a poignant reminder that on this day just as any, we must not allow fear to guide our decisions. We must remain vigilant and continue to advocate to do just as our nation sought to do on September 17, 1787:

…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.