Dear Irving ISD,
(No, scratch that.)
Dear Every School in America (but mostly Texas),
I grew up in Texas. I graduated high school and married my husband in Texas. And after that, I taught middle school for 12 years in the state before we moved to Washington. I split my time 50/50 between teaching 7th grade English & reading and 7th/8th grade computer classes for high school credit. I also sponsored robotics club, computer club, and yearbook for a stretch. So when I say that I understand the malevolent environment of a public school, I mean it.
In my twelve years teaching (eleven of which were post-9/11), I watched as minority children were judged based on the color of their skin, their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and their poverty level. They were automatically thugs or gang members based solely on their customs, language, and manner of dress. They were untrustworthy and deserving of ridicule. White female teachers clutched their purses tighter when passing teenagers of color or of Hispanic ethnicity.
I used to think that was the worst of it until I was ordered by my boss to remove two gentlemen from the yearbook who were celebrating a win by the football team. The two players draped their arms across one another’s shoulders with a sense of camaraderie, but to my principals, they looked “too gay.”
Mixed amidst the “usual” Texas racism and prejudice was a profound hatred for people of Middle Eastern descent. Muslim teens, even those from Asia, found themselves in a school system that labeled them a potential terrorist from the moment they set foot in the classroom. In some regard, I’d expected those white teens in my school to make judgments based on appearances because that’s what teenagers do—they judge. Too fat, too skinny, too nerdy, too jock, too _______. As our students pass through the system, some of us try to change that habit and battle these stereotypes, but how can we when their school role models are making the same assumptions? As adults, we should know better.
What has happened to Ahmed in Irving ISD isn’t being “cautious” or “protective” or even “proactive.” It’s prejudice, pure and simple.
Let’s pretend for a moment—a white twelve-year-old spends his time between the library and robotics club. He stays out of trouble and mostly keeps to himself. He goes home and makes a clock out of the spare motherboard from his computer and a few other parts he pulled from a broken DVD player. When “Mark Smith” shows his project to his teacher, there is never even the thought that it’s anything other than the clock he says he built. In fact, I’d wager the word “bomb” would never come up.
And why would it? Despite the majority of school shootings being orchestrated by white students, despite the fact that the Oklahoma City bomber was white, as was David Koresh in Waco, when these teachers, administrators, and police officers looked at Ahmed, they didn’t see a boy fascinated with engineering. They saw a terrorist.
So let’s be honest here.
We live in a post-9/11 world where people are afraid, people are overly cautious, and people are judgmental. But when we assume every shadow is the boogeyman of our nightmares, we allow terror to rule us. We allow the bad guys to win.
When I left Texas, I left teaching. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t look my students in the face as I explained to them what an uphill battle they would have in life because they were children of color, Hispanic, female, atheist, LGBTQIA, or Muslim. I couldn’t enforce rules that encouraged stereotypes and perpetuated hatred. It broke me to even try.
Irving ISD (and other districts), how many teachers are you willing to lose? How many students’ dreams do you dash with your prejudice? How do you know that Ahmed isn’t the one who will develop the technology needed to make paraplegics able to live a normal, mobile life? Or to allow the blind to see?
I am ashamed of Texas. I am ashamed to have taught in a state that encourages ignorance. Ahmed isn’t a terrorist—he’s a child. A child who made a clock because he loves circuitry.
I’m glad I’m no longer a teacher in Texas. If this is what teaching has become—fearful overreacting educators and administrators who shoot first and ask questions later—then I want no part in it ever again.
Irving ISD, I urge you to do the right thing. Drop the expulsion. Drop the charges against this child. Don’t tout the “children’s safety” bull, because that’s exactly what it is–bull. No one was in danger, and had they been, you would have evacuated the school or placed it on lock down, as is school emergency protocol. Instead, you kept children and staff in the building—classes continuing as normal—while the interrogation of an innocent child took place (without parental notification or consent).
This wasn’t about safety. This was about a Muslim child of Middle Eastern descent that you unfairly assumed made a bomb. Instead of encouraging his exploration and creativity, you’ve made him (and others) feel fear. No child should associate learning with fear.
Because of Irving ISD, Muslim children will be afraid to excel in STEM classes. They’ll be afraid to be unique and different. They’ll be afraid to be outgoing and inquisitive. These are the exact opposite of what a child should feel in a classroom.
Own up to your mistake and make it right. Restore not only this young man’s dreams, but society’s faith in the public school system.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
P.S. Ahmed, if you (and your family) ever make it up this way, Washington State would be proud to have a smart student like you. Plenty of tech companies up here, and UW has an excellent computer science and engineering department.