There’s a lot more going on in Irving, Texas than a clever boy with a home-made clock and brown skin. Look close, and the story of #IStandWithAhmed — and the letter the principal sent to parents — reveals how America is cracking apart.
[tweetthis]America is built on contradictions. They’re at the heart of #IStandWithAhmed.[/tweetthis]
- America’s strength comes from our diversity, since nearly all of us come from immigrant stock. We revel in our differences. And yet, we feel something about America is exceptional and admirable. We draw a circle that includes “we” and want to protect those in the circle from those outside.
- We want tolerance, innovation and freedom. And we also feel fear and crave security. All our freedoms have exceptions. We want to carry guns and we want our children to be safe from guns. We want privacy in our Internet experiences, but we want our spies to catch the bad guys using the Internet.
A Muslim youth named Ahmed Mohamed brings circuit boards and wires to school. Although he protests it’s just a clock, the authorities arrest and question him. The mayor has a history of lobbying for laws rooted in the fear of Muslims, and defends the police. It’s easy to call the authorities stupid and racist — it’s just a clock, people, and he’s just a boy who happens to be named Ahmed. But along with the stupidity and racism, paranoid zero tolerance policies in our schools helped us to reach this absurd spot.
The racist elements of this story spring directly from the American sense of self: does “we” include a boy with African parents, or is he part of what “we” need protection from? The absurd oversensitivity springs directly from the conflict about security: do we accept innovation, or do we fear anything with digital display that looks like a prop from “24” ?
As usual, the language people use reveals their fear and conflict. Dan Cummings, principal of Ahmed’s school, reveals what it’s like at the center of this conflict. If you read closely, you can see his conflicted feelings in the letter he sent to parents. As usual, I’ve put meaningless platitudes in bold italic, and my own translation in brackets following each paragraph, and my own version at the end.
In Irving ISD and at MacArthur High School, your child’s safety and well-being is always our top priority and we want to maintain open, honest and timely communication with you. If there was ever an imminent threat to your child, we would take immediate and necessary precautions,and we would inform you immediately. [Of course you’re in favor of safety, we know, there’s no need to repeat it. Every parent reading this just skips this meaningless opening paragraph.]
While we do not have [bold in original text] any threats to our school community, we want you to be aware that the Irving Police Department responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus yesterday. We are pleased to report that after the police department’s assessment, the item discovered at school did not pose a threat to your child’s safety. [Yes, a student brought a clock to school and we overreacted. You probably read that on the news.]
Our school is cooperating fully with the ongoing police investigation, and we are handling the situation in accordance with the Irving ISD Student Code of Conduct and applicable laws. Please rest assured that we will always take necessary steps to keep our school as safe as possible. I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. [OK, this is baffling. I understand why the principal felt the need to sandwich the news that there was no risk between two paragraphs of platitudes about safety. But which items are prohibited? I’m sure “clock” is not in the Code of Conduct.]
Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students. Thank you for your understanding and support of MacArthur High School as we do everything we can for your child’s safety. [Since the principal can’t tell what’s a threat and what’s not, he asks teenagers to judge for him. Let’s delegate the paranoia and racism to high school students, that’s sure to work!]
Imagine if Principal Cummings could tell the truth. In my fantasy, his letter reads like this:
A boy bought a clock to school yesterday. A few of us thought it looked like a bomb, so just to be on the safe side, we arrested him and checked it out. But it was just a clock he built himself.
Because being a school principal in today’s world requires me to be totally paranoid, I’ll keep checking for demons under every desk. And I’ve deputized your children to help me. We may have more false alarms, but that’s the cost of freedom here in Irving.
I need to run a school in a town with a community of Muslims and a few Muslim-haters, too. Please stop thanking me and the police chief for our vigilance. I know this looks bad. In the future, I’ll try to hassle students of all races and religions equally.
Have a conversation with your kids about making friends with people who are different from themselves. That’s the best way to make sure we all know what’s going on, and can tell a boy with a clock from one with an assault rifle.