Ahmed, Meet Floyd

Ahmed’s Ordeal: Cuz Stupidity Is Bigger In Texas

Racism and xenophobia? Sure. But it’s also our rigid schools and their ridiculous zero-tolerance policies. Pink Floyd had it right.

Ben Torres/Getty

Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the irredeemable stupidity of the idiots who run their public schools as if they are minimum-security prisons. Then again, given the gigantic role that penitentiaries play in Texas’s state budget, perhaps principals view becoming wardens as aspirational.

How else to explain the handcuffing and suspension of ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old kid so lost to the dark arts of nerd-dom that he “makes his own radios and repairs his own go-kart”?

After taking a homemade clock to school to show one of his teachers, he was cuffed and accused of brandishing what cops and school officials ultimately called a “hoax bomb.” Ahmed attends MacArthur High School in Irving, outside of Dallas, but after his inexcusable ordeal admits that he’s thinking about transferring “to any other school.”

To his fellow students’ credit, some of them immediately created a Twitter account @IStandWithAhmed and started a massively popular hashtag with the same mention. The situation was quickly defused and Ahmed even pulled an invitation from President Obama, who tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House?”

Most observers chalked up Ahmed’s rough treatment to racism. Salon saw it as a “toxic cocktail” that mixed equal parts “racism” and “xenophobia” with a dash “of tech-illiteracy.”

Hysterical, out-of-the-blocks fears of dark-skinned kids, especially Muslims carrying timing devices, is certainly a large part of the equation, for sure (as Salon’s Paula Young Lee notes, ethnic and racial minorities are disciplined at far higher rates than whites, even controlling for behavior).

It doesn’t help that the mayor of Irving, Beth Van Duyne, is a nutjob who’s convinced that Sharia law is supplanting the Lone Star State’s brand of justice. I’ve got no specific beef against Texas—indeed, I lived in the prison town of Huntsville for two years and the people I met there were among the kindest and friendliest I’ve known. But there’s often a deference to authority and a refusal by officials to admit error that is mind-boggling. (In this, as in so many other, more-positive ways, perhaps Texas represents the future of the whole United States.) Certainly, Van Duyne’s baseless fears are indicative of free-floating paranoia that hovers over Texas and many parts of the country like a toxic cloud.

In support of a law that would bar voluntary mediation practices including Sharia (which is popular among Muslim communities), Van Duyne told Glenn Beck, “I think you need to put your foot down and say this is America, we have laws here already. If you want to consult, if you want to arbitrate, that is well within our law... I’ve got no problem with it. But setting up a separate court, setting up separate law is not anything” she’d allow.

But as my Reason colleague Robby Soave notes, “school zero-tolerance insanity” is deeply implicated as well. Attending high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my friends and I listened incessantly to Pink Floyd’s epic anti-factory-schooling masterpiece The Wall. Over two glorious LPs, Pink Floyd inverted savior-teacher films such as To Sir, With Love and zeroed in on how just stultifying school was to anyone with half a brain and any sense of independence (sure, the Brit school system of The Wall was worse than its U.S. counterpart, but it all rang true to the kids in America).

What we didn’t know back then was that we had it easy compared to today’s kids. Indeed, as we baby boomers started running the very K-12 schools and colleges and universities we once chafed against, we instituted an endlessly multiplying procession of “zero-tolerance policies” on everything from teeny-tiny toy guns to Midol for girls dealing with their periods (read this and then curse out your local school boards). Piss tests went from being required only of Olympic medalists to being Supreme Court-approved prerequisites for honor students singing in choir and joining academic quiz teams (seriously).

So while I don’t doubt that poor Ahmed Mohamed’s skin color and religion didn’t help him, it’s not the only factor at play here. Consider another absolutely insane case, one involving the white sixth-grade son of two teachers in Bedford County, Virginia. The child, whose name is being withheld due to his age, was in a gifted-and-talented program earlier this year when officials found a suspicious-looking leaf (!) in his backpack. They presumed it was a pot leaf and had it tested no fewer than three times before acknowledging that no, it was from a Japanese maple tree. That discovery didn’t stop school officials from suspending the kid for a year. Cue what Pink Floyd dubbed “dark sarcasm in the classroom.”

After trying to work out a deal so their son could return to school, wrote Dan Casey, The Roanoke Times reporter who broke the story, the parents “are out money for lawyers and doctors, and they’re out the time they’ve taken to homeschool their child. Meanwhile, his psyche is very fragile now compared to its state before [school officials] found the leaf in his knapsack.” In July, a federal judge ruled that the parents’ lawsuit against the school district could proceed, but Casey tells me via email that the case seems stuck, at least for the time being.

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If you attribute Ahmed Mohamed’s shameful treatment wholly to xenophobia, you’re missing a huge chunk of the reason why public school is a hassle and a national embarrassment. And why a full 36 years after its release, the core message of Pink Floyd’s The Wall“Hey Teachers! Leave Them Kids Alone!”—sounds like it was written yesterday.