This story was originally published in the Dallas Morning News
If you want to know Ahmed Mohamed — not the hoax bomb suspect or the vindicated celebrity, but the motormouth kid with a schoolbag full of inventions and a head full of questions — ask a teacher.
Ask at Sam Houston Middle School, where the boy from Sudan mastered electronics and English, once built a remote control to prank the classroom projector and bragged of reciting his First Amendment rights in the principal’s office.
It’s also the school where Ahmed racked up weeks of suspensions, became convinced an administrator had it in for him and — before he left for the high school where he turned famous — prompted Irving ISD to review claims of anti-Muslim bullying.
If you want to know about the boy before the fame, ask Ralph Kubiak: Ahmed’s seventh-grade history teacher and fellow outsider.
‘Weird little kid’
“He was a weird little kid,” said Kubiak, now 62 and retired. “I saw a lot of him in me. That thirst for knowledge … he’s one of those kids that could either be CEO of a company or head of a gang.”
Kubiak didn’t fit the mold either. To say he taught Ahmed Texas history in seventh grade would be to miss the point of what he calls his “ministry for 12 years at Sam Houston: to make sure these children knew the truth about their rights.”
With a thick beard sprouting from a button-down shirt, Kubiak was the teacher who played Steppenwolf songs in class and segued from the textbooks into his personal memories of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
He wanted his students — 4 out of 5 at Sam Houston are considered poor by the state — to question the world and its expectations of them. Not to let adults control them.
Ahmed was as good a disciple as anyone.
The boy showed up at the school in sixth grade with almost no English: bespectacled, small for his age and far from the continent where he was born. But a year later, sitting below the posters of black leaders in Kubiak’s classroom, he could discuss similarities between Judaism, Christianity and his faith, Islam.
“He was secure enough in his religion to look at the other side,” Kubiak said. The teacher remembered talking about the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, agreeing with Ahmed that they twisted Muslim scripture to control ignorant people.
“I said, ‘Don’t they read their own Quran?’ Kubiak recalled. “He said, ‘A lot of folks don’t.’”
Not that the preteen was a full-time philosopher. Another teacher remembered Ahmed after school: He and his friends would line up on opposite ends of a field, careen into each other at full speed, then get up and do it again.
But Ahmed’s intelligence shone through in the classroom, in robotics club, and in the homemade inventions he would often cram into his backpack.
Some of his middle school teachers were surprised to hear that MacArthur High staff called the police this month after Ahmed brought a homemade clock to class. He had dragged far more elaborate gizmos into Sam Houston all the time.
When a seemingly possessed projector kept shutting off mid-lecture, young boys’ snickers surrounded Ahmed’s desk, where he sat with a hand-built remote control in his lap.
When a tutor’s cell phone went dead, Ahmed’s jerry-rigged battery charger brought it back to life.
Some of these creations looked much like the infamous clock — a mess of wires and exposed circuits stuffed inside a hinged case, perhaps suspicious to some. But no one interviewed by The Dallas Morning News remembered Ahmed getting into trouble for bringing his creations to Sam Houston.
The boy found trouble other ways.
‘He just went on and on’
It didn’t take Ahmed long to learn fluent English. Once he did, he had a habit of overusing it — trying to impress classmates with a nonstop stream of chatter, teachers said, and often annoying them instead.
“I love him dearly, but sometimes it got to be a little much,” Kubiak agreed. “He just went on and on.”
Kubiak, who once went to school in Colonial pantaloons to promote the U.S. Constitution, said he chided Ahmed after hearing that the boy tried to get out of detention by reciting the First Amendment in the principal’s office.
“That was genius, son,” Kubiak recalled saying sarcastically. “What did she do?”
“He said, ‘She gave me Saturday detention.’”
Detention wasn’t the worst of it. While his discipline record is confidential and his father didn’t want to discuss it, the file was thick by some accounts.
Ahmed said he was suspended for several weeks in sixth grade. A family friend, Anthony Bond, said the boy and a cousin were blowing soap bubbles in the bathroom, and the school overreacted.
“Kids are kids,” said Bond, who has known Ahmed since he enrolled at Sam Houston. “He was a little boy in a new environment, and they were acting out.”
There was more trouble in seventh grade. Kubiak said he sent Ahmed’s classwork to the district’s reassignment center until he finished his punishment. “He still ended up with an A in my class,” he said.
By eighth grade, the young inventor was complaining of bullying — not just by students, but by staff.
In November, Bond wrote a letter to the superintendent, school board president, and other officials, protesting that Ahmed had been suspended for defending himself during a hallway fight.
A larger boy had been choking Ahmed, Bond wrote. What’s more: “Ahmed also alleges that every day, students in the school are calling him ‘Bacon Boy and Sausage Boy and ISIS Boy.’”
Ahmed blamed an administrator at the school who, Bond wrote, the boy felt “has been terrorizing him since the 6th grade” — hindering him from praying in school and unfairly punishing him. The News is not naming the administrator because it has not yet been able to investigate Ahmed’s complaints.
Bond’s letter called the boy’s treatment “Muslim bashing” — previewing outrage from people across the world after Ahmed blamed Islamophobia for his handcuffing this month.
Bertha Whatley, who was Irving ISD’s attorney last year, said, “high-level” officials at the district reviewed Bond’s letter. Bond said the principal overturned the suspension after meeting with Ahmed.
Kubiak was no longer Ahmed’s teacher in eighth grade, but he said the two still talked in the hallways nearly every day. Discussions of politics or religion sometimes turned to his resentment at the powers that be. “His eyes were pretty watered up” the day he told Kubiak he was being bullied, the teacher said.
“This kid was being pushed. At least he thought he was being pushed,” Kubiak said. “He’s got a habit for attracting or being in situations — being on the outside.”
Ahmed wasn’t the only one.
Kubiak, the eternal civil rights ideologue, was growing uncomfortable with Sam Houston’s administration. He complained to the superintendent that the school was too quick to suspend children and said he refused to use a new student evaluation system that “wrote some kids off.” He was booted down to teach sixth-grade last year — and he knew he was done.
“They didn’t force me into retirement,” Kubiak said. “But I was damn sure glad to go.”
Ahmed and Kubiak never got to say goodbye on their last day at Sam Houston.
Staff rushed the students out the door before they could find each other, Ahmed recalled. He tried to email Kubiak later, but the district had already switched off the account.
A few months later — after a misunderstood clock and sudden fame interrupted his first month of high school — Ahmed wondered if his old teacher had noticed.
He grinned wide last week when a reporter told him that Kubiak had called.
Minutes later, the boy was on the phone with Kubiak, his bare feet dangling from an unmade bed. They spoke not of politics or religion, but of New York and Good Morning America. Of whether middle-school persecutors regretted it now.
“I told you one day I’m going to be — and you told me yourself — I’m going to be really big on the Internet one day,” Ahmed said.
But privately, Kubiak worried about fame’s effect on “an immature, fertile mind.”
At Sam Houston, he said, he’d often warn his students “to keep the adults out of it.”
“The adults have an agenda,” he would say. “The adults are using you.”
The day after Kubiak and Ahmed spoke, a public relations consultant walked into Ahmed’s house with plans for a national tour: Google and California, the United Nations, and Dr. Oz.
The next time Kubiak tried to reach the boy, he had to leave a voicemail.
He phoned again the next day and didn’t hear back.
He’s begun to suspect the adults have Ahmed at last.
By AVI SELK