40 years ago I embarked on my shortwave radio adventure and flew headlong into the world of geekdom. Because my radio was built in 1937, I needed to perform periodic maintenance on it, checking vacuum tubes, capacitors, and the like. I had my father’s superior knowledge of electronics to fall back on for assistance. He had rebuilt that radio in 1968 for my brother Robert, who found it while working at an electronics shop that summer. Robert said Dad literally brought it back from the dead. 47 years later, it still works. I compare it to the Doctor’s “antiquated” Type-40 TARDIS. They truly don’t make them like they used to.
In 1981, as a 9th grade graduation present, I received a Heathkit clock kit. I had always wanted a 24-hour clock, and this one could be built to operate as one. (Geek alert!) In the world of international shortwave radio, the time is told in UTC or GMT in 24-hour format. So having such a clock would make it easier to tell when international programs came on. I remember building the radio on the dining room table, my father’s guiding hand nearby. I was thrilled. Not only would I have a 24-hour clock, but also I could say that I built it myself. Of course, it was only a kit and all you had to do was follow the directions. My father was such a badass that he probably could have designed the thing and built it from scratch.
14 year-old Ahmed Mohamed of Irving, Texas seems like a similarly clever person when it comes to electronics. He designs and builds radios, clocks, and other gimmicky gadgets for kicks, in his spare time. If he had gone to my school, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, LA’s first magnet school, he would have found kindred spirits. Geeks thrived at CES when I was there; I trust it is the same today. We congregated and did geek things, like play with the then-new, then-awesome TRS-80 personal computer from Radio Shack (RIP). Our teachers encouraged such activities. Sadly, Mr. Mohamed does not go to CES or anything like it. He instead goes to a school steeped in fear and loathing. So when he brought a clock he built to school to show to his science teacher, instead of getting a pat on the back, he got called into the principal’s office and then put into handcuffs by the local police. Why? Because his homemade clock looked liked a bomb, at least to the teachers, principal, and the police. They described it as something meant to look like a bomb to cause mass panic. Apparently they thought the clock description was just a “story.” So they took him in for questioning and confiscated the device he created. Charges were later dropped.
Let’s leave aside the elephant in the room for just a hot second. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that the device created was indeed meant to look like a bomb prop, or maybe even the real deal. Why, then, would Mr. Mohamed telegraph his punch, so to speak, by showing the thing to a teacher? Did the Sandy Hook assassin telegraph his motives by showing off his guns and ammo to a teacher before his killing spree? Did the Columbine assassins telegraph their motives by showing off their guns and ammo to a teacher before their killing spree? Of course they didn’t. So why would this kid show this device to a teacher if it was anything but innocent? Right? So now that we’ve dispatched that bit of tripe, let’s get to the elephant.
Mr. Mohamed is a Muslim and his name sounds to some Arab. That was the source of the suspicions about the clock. The teachers, principal, and police all vehemently deny that his religion or ethnic background had anything to do with his arrest. Rubbish. Clearly these attributes were at the heart of their outrageous accusations. And make no mistake, the adults in this situation behaved outrageously. Ahmed Mohamed looked scared, dazed, confused, and humiliated standing in his NASA t-shirt with his hands cuffed behind his back. Outrageous barely describes his situation. I honestly can’t think of any words to adequately describe how cruel and evil this act was.
I brought my portable shortwave radios to school often – and they looked rather fierce with tons of knobs and buttons – but not once did someone call the cops on me under some trumped up pretense, like I was signaling the Commies or something. Mr. Mohamed was not so fortunate. His teachers failed. His principal failed. The police of his city failed. They all failed this young man. Instead of congratulating him on his innovative spirit, his cleverness, his willingness to go above and beyond to learn and explore, they punished him and humiliated him. Their motive wasn’t concern for the school’s wellbeing and it certainly wasn’t for Mr. Mohamed’s wellbeing. Their motive was misplaced, naked fear. 14 years after 9/11, the year of Mr. Mohamed’s birth, anti-Muslim sentiments still run as strongly as ever. Anyone who looks or remotely sounds Muslim is subject to have their rights revoked or abused at a moments notice, without so much as a by-your-leave. This is what happened to Mr. Mohamed, a fact he sadly realized immediately. He also said that he would no longer bring his inventions to school, the very place he should bring them to be recognized and guided into accomplishing even greater feats.
My father wanted to go to college and study engineering when he got out of the army after World War II. He didn’t make it. First, the GI folks gave him the run around, not the money he was due. Second, the school he wanted to go to did not want to admit him, despite his obvious qualifications. Of course, the Army didn’t recognize his talents, either. Blacks were relegated to quartermaster detail, and that’s what my father did. He was not the radio dude that you see in World War II movies like he should have been. My father’s revenge was to have five kids just as geeky as he was, for all five to go to college, for one of them to major in engineering, my late brother Robert, and for another to get a full scholarship to go to the school that had rejected him years earlier.
So my message to you, Mr. Mohamed, is simple. Hang in there. It will get better. Your school and the entire city of Irving are currently being humiliated by their actions against you, as well they should be. It is not your fault. They had a choice and they chose poorly. You have a bright future ahead of you. President Obama has already invited you to the White House to look at and learn about your inventions. I have no doubt that many universities in due course will be eager to give you scholarships so that when it’s time for college, you’ll have your pick of offers. Be aware of the bigotry that exists, but do not let it deter you. The best way to get past this dreadful incident is to continue to be the person you are, to continue to dream, and to continue to strive to fulfill these dreams. But it sounds like you already know all this. That makes you a much wiser person than many of the adults at your soon-to-be former school.
I have no doubt that you’ll feature in other headlines, only these will tout your accomplishments as an inventor and entrepreneur.