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What Time Is It?

September 22, 2015

A boy named Ahmed made a clock. Sometimes I have trouble even setting mine. As for making one, well, I think there are wires that connect somewhere and don’t you have to put that tic-toc sound in it? Last week, Ahmed made one–you know, one of those devices that tells us what time it is. When he brought his prized accomplishment to school, it did just that.

What time is it? It is said that even a broken clock is right twice a day. In the United States, it seems that this broken clock is right all the time and is reading the same thing it has read for centuries. Sometimes the (clock) face changes, but the hands are always pointing at the same numbers.

What happened to Ahmed Mohamed reminded me of what happened to my sister, I think it was her sophomore year in high school. She had this pen. It was bulbous with a string to carry it around her neck. She wore it to school daily with pride. She loved it so much because it was one like our mom wore to work every day. She was proud of her mom and the work she did, as all of us in the family were. We were proud at how, when people met her on the street showed their appreciation for her kindness and character and how she tried to treat people as much like Jesus would. (Interestingly enough, both of our parents had jobs that allowed them this kind of ministry.)

Mom retired from that job working in the hospital admitting department a decade and a half ago. She used to remind us that through the front doors of the hospital, people were facing some of the biggest and most vulnerable, and maybe the most frightening episodes of their lives. The person at the admitting desk was the first experience and impression of this life episode. How patients and family were treated at this point in their journey was crucial.

My sister had learned this lesson as did all of her siblings, but that lesson was completely lost one morning when she was called out of class into the principal’s office.

“Let’s have it,” he said. My sister was puzzled. “Let’s have the pen.” Why did they want her pen? It was even more puzzling than the irony that she was being questioned for having that one thing, a writing utensil, that teachers harped the most about being absent from the tools they brought to class. (If we left our intellect in our locker, often, that would go unnoticed and unsanctioned.)

As she handed it to the principal, he instructed her to take it apart and lay all the pieces on his desk.

The air of accusation unpacked itself like the pen, which she gradually figured out, was supposed to contain drugs.

For Ahmed, it did not matter that his prized project reflected a quite different stereotype than the one his accusers prefered. Brown people’s talents are often seen as threats rather than assets unless they can be obtained through exploitation. Such a threat, the one that puts him in place to take advantage of opportunities for which we have chosen not to educate non-immigrant, resident populations–even more increasingly so as that home population itself has become more brown.

For my sister, it did not matter that anyone who knew her knew her as the person whose way of moving through the world was modeled after the woman who carried the pen around her neck at work.

To be able to walk through the world without expending so much energy outrunning the stereotypes, navigating around the prosecutorial spears, avoiding what some might want to call “potholes” but are actually large chasms in which actual and figurative lives are lost–to not just be rid of the extra weight, someone else’s weight that makes each step traveled, this race we all run but some with no cheering from the sidelines and the heft of the baggage digs deeper and deeper creases into our skin, joints and into the paths beneath where we trod.

Luckily, someone was watching when Ahmed reached that point, that familiar one that sees us expelled, arrested or just pummelled into a painful silence. One voice from yesterday made it out alive amid the millions of others smothered or hoarse from pleading for sanity.

We continue to make the jokes out of the persistent irony surrounding these potentially lethal brushes with America’s uncomfortable caste. We laugh because we won’t be caught crying in public, though our mothers weep with sadness and anger in a musical language usually reserved for high gospel music. So, we joke about what looks like simpleton culture–even though it is quite contrived and systemic. We joke about these people, but still the joke, and the destruction, are on us.

My sister was not arrested. Reagan-era school administrators still saw themselves as constable and the first line of justice even if they were just a couple of years beyond the justice-by-paddle era. And she was not paraded in the sight of the “good” children whose spilled weekend beers my siblings and I only heard of through overheard conversations about the parties and death-defying, semi-sober drives home that were a race against parental scorn or worry. It did not take handcuffs to create the aura of scorn, nor did it take harrowing, drunken dashes down the Stearns County backroads to move my mom to worry, not for what her kids might do but for what was being done to them.

I would like to think that these episodes are all cases of mistaken identity. Sadly, they are not. We are identified regularly and predictably. We can set our clocks by it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Stiffman permalink
    September 22, 2015 4:14 pm

    Clarence, Beautifully written, insightful, and eye opening as always.

    I always know that when I get one of your posts it will be meaningful.


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