Ignorance is Not Stupidity: Lessons Learned From The Ahmed Mohamed Clock Saga

We need to report danger and apologize profusely & sincerely when we're wrong.
Iraqi IED. Bombs can look like anything.
Iraqi IED. Bombs can look like anything.

The school’s side of the Ahmed Clock story is not yet available, and in case you’re seeing this for the first time, I’m talking about an American teenager who went to school with an electronic clock and was dragged away in chains for, in the words of the police involved, “a hoax bomb.” Color that last phrase with the understanding that the teenager is a black son of an immigrant, a Muslim, and named Ahmed, and you likely have a good understanding of the current partisan rhetoric—the Mayor of Irving, a staunch Islamophobic, stiffly refuses to apologize, and the cynical leftists say that the police are gracious for not having shot the black teen.

I’m not alone, I doubt, in not knowing my ass from a hole in the ground where electronics are concerned, but I do teach English—privately, rather than in classrooms—but I’m close enough to education that I can see myself in the shoes of the English teacher who first reported Ahmed’s device to the principal. In the words of @Shoq, who tweeted a photo of the clock:

I’m an educated person, and I have no idea that I’m looking at a clock in that picture. In fact, at a cursory glance, and knowing that I have a classroom of children I’m responsible for, I might even have panicked a little. There are wires, some kind of a packet, and it can close into a case to look less conspicuous. And let’s be honest. In the moment, that could have been genuinely terrifying, and fear like that makes it very difficult to notice the details that in retrospect make this much more obviously a simple clock. Ahmed said repeatedly that the device was a clock, but it’s understandable that this might not assuage a teacher’s concerns; teenagers are prone to stupidity and grand acts of drama, and do this while the nation is asking its teachers to work atop a constant membrane of fear from media accounts that glorify (and in all probability, help perpetuate) acts of student terrorism in classrooms.

The English teacher who sent Ahmed and his clock to the principal’s office (If that’s indeed what happened – I’m writing close enough to the event that it’s probable the narrative of the event will evolve) made the correct call, in this context. In complete and understandable ignorance, this teacher deferred the critical decision of how to react to an unknown device to a higher authority, and by the accounts I’ve read, did so quickly. It was a smart decision made out of ignorance.

I would have reported the device, too, even if I knew it would mean I’d owe Ahmed an awkward apology later. (You hear that, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne? People can and should strategically and meaningfully apologize to each other. It doesn’t hurt. Try it!) Even if it comes out that this teacher is a member of the KKK and used the coupon code “Muslim” to buy a howitzer, and even if this teacher can be demonstrated to have been systematically targeting black children in the classroom for decades, and even if this teacher’s tone was accusatory and hysterical, none of that affects that the correct decision was reporting the device to a higher authority and getting someone more capable to make a call.

If this teacher had gone so far as to evacuate the classroom, even that would have been a defensible, if humiliating, decision.

Every action the school and the police took from this point on was a condemnable clusterfuck, and whether that is the fault of the school system’s absurd and indefensible Zero Tolerance nonsense (as I hear from the right), or systemic racism (as I hear from the left) being levied at a student who has the misfortune to be the unholy trifecta of an immigrant’s son, black, and Muslim  I will leave to pundits who are not on their first day on the job.

In the meantime, in the words of Barack Obama, “Cool clock, Ahmed.” Keep building. If you haven’t worried someone, you’re not doing it right.

Bartholomew Klick is a liberal who maintains that disagreement is important, that critique of the untouchable is mission critical for a functioning society, and that people are not their ideologies. He holds an M.A. in communication and tutors English and writing techniques for fun and something resembling profit. He also makes comic strips with his roommate and hucks them at the internet from a dubious platform at ramen-empire.com.
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