Around 1991, as a 7th grader, my fascination with science far exceeded my prepubescent fascination with girls. For that year’s science project, I decided to explore the world of energy by exploring traditional sources (i.e. fossil fuels) and looking at potential future sources (solar, nuclear etc.). I did a comprehensive report, doing most of my research at libraries (you know those buildings that housed books!). I also did a lot of reading in encyclopedia Britannica (RIP!). In addition to a comprehensive 15 page written report, my teacher suggested everyone bring something in class that could demonstrate what we had learned.
I was impressed with what I had discovered about nuclear energy and decided to bring an orange to class to demonstrate the processes of nuclear fission and fusion. Standing in front of a class of 30 snickering and giggly teenagers, I explained how the orange was an atom and splitting it (fission) would create juice i.e. nuclear energy. Conversely, smashing together the separated pieces would also result in a citrus shower i.e. nuclear fusion. And with that explanation, I put on one of our science aprons, a pair of our chemistry goggles and aggressively smashed my orange down the middle using a knife I brought from home.
Those early teenage years were hard enough as it was. But I fondly remember this because it reminds me of my love for science and one of the early examples of how I overcame shyness and insecurity to stand in front of an audience. I wouldn’t have recalled this moment were it not for the story of a young Muslim teenager and science tinkerer from Irving, Texas who was arrested like a common criminal for bringing a homemade clock to school.
I am frightened to think what would’ve happened today if I tried to do a science demonstration by bringing a knife to class. I probably wouldn’t even had made it through the school doors because of metal detectors. The mere sight of young Muslim male with paper thin arms, wielding a butter knife would’ve resulted in a SWAT team descending upon my school to whisk me away in handcuffs. My parents and sister would be intensely interrogated and humiliated. With the rampant bigotry and xenophobia going around today, maybe my parents would think seriously about going back to Bangladesh. Or if we stayed with the stain of being a suspected criminal, would I have the courage to continue to pursue my passions or just settle into a life of acceptance of the old (and now reborn?) American reality that perhaps all men are not created equal.
But something terrible did happen to me on that fateful day in 1991 where I brought a knife to class. I got a “B” on my mediocre report which drew the intense ire of my parents. It was probably one of those sentinel moments that are emotionally magnified as a teenager which led me to work harder in pursuit of my goals. But what happened to Ahmed is far worse than a bad grade on a science project. I hope with the same intelligence that he uses to create, tinker and build, he is able to realize that it’s not his fault he was born in the post 9/11 world. And that regardless of how the world may view him and try to bring him down, this is still a great country where someone bright and hardworking like him will have the opportunity to become successful, make a difference and change many hearts and minds.