Two years before Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas high school, Kiera Wilmot, then 16, brought a science-fair experiment to her school in Bartow, Florida. After she mixed toilet-bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle—an extremely popular YouTube science experiment (1,430 results right here)—the lid popped off and smoke poured out.
Though there were no injuries or property damage, administrators at Bartow High School contacted the police, who arrested Wilmot and led the 11th-grader, an honor student with no history of disciplinary problems, off in handcuffs. Sound familiar? “It was literally one week after the Boston bombing and I was being compared to the Boston bomber,” she told a local news station.
Wilmot, who is black, was suspended for 10 days and recommended for expulsion. She was also charged with two felonies, though—after great public outcry—these charges were later dropped and her record expunged. After completing her junior year at an alternative high school for troubled kids, Wilmot returned to Bartow High School, which is 60 percent white, her senior year and graduated on time.
I spoke with Wilmot—now 19 and a sophomore at Florida Polytechnic University majoring in mechanical engineering—this morning about Mohamed’s predicament. She said that her first reaction was anger: “I honestly thought, ‘How could this happen to somebody else?’ ”
Islamophobia has been cited as a (or the) factor in Mohamed’s arrest; did race play a role in Wilmot’s? When asked if she thought she would’ve received the same treatment if she’d been white, Wilmot said, “I’m not sure.” And then, after a judicious pause, “No, probably not.”
When she returned to Bartow High her senior year, Wilmot said, “There were a few students who started a beef with me, they’d say stuff like ‘next time you plan to blow up the school, let us know’ and that kind of thing,” but the administrators who’d called the police on her never apologized or even acknowledged the incident to her face.
“I still have people who harass me about it and call me a terrorist, but I’ve moved on,” Wilmot said. And some good has come from her arrest, too: “I got a scholarship to space camp and got to meet Homer Hickam,” former NASA engineer, “who’s my hero,” Wilmot said.
Does she have any advice for Mohamed, now the most famous 14-year-old MIT aspirant in the country? “I’d like to tell him that he’s got to move forward and rise up out of this,” she said. “He can show everyone he can’t be brought down by what happened and make something good of this.”
Like, say, the invitation Mohamed received from President Obama to attend Astronomy Night on the South Lawn of the White House next month? Yeah, that’ll do.