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Why the Arrest of a Science-Loving 14-year-old Matters

By: Shaun Tanner, 6:40 PM GMT on September 16, 2015

By now, many of you have heard or read about the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high school student from Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested because school officials called the police after he showed one of his teachers his homemade clock. Mistaken for a bomb, Ahmed was taken into custody, interrogated, shamed, suspended (still on suspension today, Wednesday), and reprimanded. All of this after it has been found that the "device" he brought to school was indeed, a homemade clock.

Many of you may also be wondering why I am even writing a blog about something that is so clearly not weather-related. Well, we are a science-first website so I wanted to give you my take on this event from the mindset of a science-loving teenager. My direct intent is not to call out school officials and police (the greater public and media are doing a great job of that already). Rather, I want to focus on what may go on in Ahmed's science-loving mind after this incident has cleared the public's focus.

From all accounts so far (I've read many reports on the incident), Ahmed loved to disassemble and reassemble stuff. This was especially true for electronics. His dream is to become an inventor. In fact, this was one of the reasons he brought his homemade clock to school that day. He wanted advice. In the CNN.com story above, his dad says, "my son only brought it to school to ask for help from his teachers, to show that he can do this amazing thing and maybe get appreciation and to show him (he can become) something bigger in the world -- an inventor."

After the alarm on the clock accidentally went off in class, one of his teachers reported him and the police were called. Never did Ahmed (from any reports I can find) say the word "bomb" or "explosive". In fact, the school administrators and the police are the one people in any article stating those words. They escalated this, not Ahmed.

After his arrest, the Dallas Morning News did this report with Ahmed.

Here is a picture taken of Ahmed at the time of his arrest.

That is a 14-year-old child, folks. A 14-year-old child who went to school for something he was proud of, and got arrested. A 14-year-old mind who is still forming right from wrong, what he is interested in, and a social life. Imagine what your life was like as a teenager.

By the way, for those interested:

Which means, Ahmed was suspended for no real reason.

Recently, my wife and I have been reading and listening to Brené Brown. She's a researcher who has done extensive studies on vulnerability. I make no understatement when I say that her worked has changed my life and my marriage. I can't recommend reading and listening to her work enough. Her TED talk on vulnerability is the most compelling thing I've watched, listened to, or read certainly in the past 15 years (if you are interested, go to Amazon and search for "Brené Brown". She has several books that are eye-opening) . It is with this scope that I offer my thoughts on the extreme damage the school officials and police have done to this science-loving child.

One of the areas of research that Brené Brown covers is shame and guilt (she did another TED talk on it, too). According to Brown, shame is the "gremlin that says you're not good enough." Basically, shame is that little person in your head that says you're not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough. Shame tells you to just stay in that corner and not come out. We all have a shame gremlin (except for sociopaths). Brown has a very simple quote to determine the difference between shame and guilt. "Shame is I am bad, guilt is I did something bad."

Shame is very dangerous, while guilt can be healthy and self-educational. Shame is often the reason people become addicts. They aren't good enough enough because their parents didn't pay attention to them, etc. Guilt is completely inversely related to shame.

Unfortunately, I see nothing but shame for Ahmed in this story. From the school administrators, to the teachers, to the police. Instead of being celebrated for being a young, budding inventor and scientist, Ahmed may now be stuck with, "I am a bad person." That, is shame. And this may be true for him even though he did nothing really wrong.

For a country that has diminished its emphasis on science in the classroom, this is especially harmful. In my opinion, we are a country that desperately needs innovation and creativity. These two things cannot be achieved without vulnerability. Ahmed showed vulnerability that day by bringing in his invention to show his teacher. Instead, he was rewarded with shame. If I could say anything to Ahmed right now, it would be that I'm sorry. I'm not apologizing for the school administrators, teachers, or police officers. I'm apologizing for me. I'm sorry that Monday was such a terrible day for you. I'm sorry you were undoubtedly terrifed. But, please find a way to keep inventing. Please continue to take apart your electronics and put them back together. Please continue to find ways for your educators to see how awesome you are. With your vulnerability and courage, perhaps more will be inspired to take risks and one day all kids can be brave enough to bring their inventions to their teachers.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.