The View from Room 418
What to teach immigrant children about America when they are afraid of the President
Room 418 at the International Community High School in the South Bronx was unusually quiet at the start of second period. It was February 10, the day after a federal appeals panel rejected President Trump’s bid to reinstate his first travel ban into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim nations. All 22 of the seniors were recent immigrants to New York, some Muslim from those very countries. The highs and lows of the previous volatile weeks had taken its toll on their families.
History teacher Alhassan Susso kicked off his unit on security and freedom in the U.S. by posing a difficult question. Had the courts done the right thing to lift the president’s ban? Constitutionally speaking?
The class agreed unanimously. There was no evidence to support President Trump’s argument that barring citizens of the counties on his list would prevent domestic terror attacks.
“But, he’s the commander-in-chief,” challenged Susso, hopping up to sit on the desk in the corner of the room, where he could see all his students at once. “Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court said that during times of crisis, who has power? The President.” Susso answered his own question.
“Is the court being fair to Trump?” he asked. The students glanced at each other. “Are we in a crisis, right now?”
One student piped up, “The crisis is Trump.” Laughter. Participation started to warm up to its usual pitch.
Susso smiled, clean cut in his khakis and crisp blue shirt. “Could Trump know something we might not know?” he asked.
“He knows a lot,” answered Yasser, a Yemeni student sitting at the back table. The chair next to him where his friend Mustafa usually sat was empty. He was meeting with a pro-bono attorney to attempt passage back to Yemen to see his sick mother. (Students’ last names are omitted at the request of the school.)
Two weeks later, Susso expressed dismay at the outcome of the history class’s debate. The students had concluded that Trump’s travel ban was justified. In the end, their trust in the structure of the U.S. government was so strong they believed the president must have had intelligence he wasn’t sharing.
All the roughly 440 students in International Community High School had arrived in the U.S. within the last four years from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Yemen. Every student is a recent immigrant, and admission is conditional on failing a state English language test.
“I don’t know how I failed them,” said Susso on the phone after a winter break. Their fear of going against the president of the country their parents had risked their lives to enter had been insurmountable.
“We decided the travel ban made sense for a few weeks,” said Hasanul, a student from Bangladesh. “We can’t know everything.”
Fear is often the only constant for these children of refugees and recent immigrants. The International Community High School is in District 7 in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the nation. The U.S. Census found that 38 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line.
Susso’s classroom is typical, with its pale blue walls, linoleum floor, clock above the white board ticking through the minutes of each period. The windows of Classroom 418 look out on the South Bronx, a repetitive view of low buildings, fire escapes, empty lots and chain-link fences.
The students’ 2015 mean score on the SAT, a test notorious for being skewed to white and Asian middle class children, was 995 out of 2400, compared to a city average of 1352.
Many students at the International Community High School live oceans away from their parents or siblings. They often work late nights, especially the male students. When Susso led a class discussion on poverty and used the example of someone who works 40 hours a week at McDonald’s for $12 an hour, half the room yelled out “$12.25!” They all knew the rates had recently risen by a quarter.
This is a community of children whose families rely both on their wages and on their rudimentary English. They are especially vulnerable in the wake of the Muslim travel ban and under the threat of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance.
“These kids don’t know where they’re waking up tomorrow,” said Roberto Perez, a guidance counselor at the school. Perez said a Honduran junior at the school had received a threatening letter from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under her apartment door over the weekend. Other students talked about raids on nearby city hospitals, where some nurses are undocumented. “It’s happening too quickly, it’s like a storm.”
ICE declined to give the exact number of immigrants detained since the order was issued. But The New York Times said federal immigration officials had detained over 600 people, 40 of those in the New York area, during the first week of February alone.
Perez said his students live in fear of the ICE raids. They are scared by rumors, such as those about alleged check points in the subways designed to catch them. They fear losing their homes, or being cut off from parents or siblings still living in their home countries, or through deportation in the States.
Despite Susso’s emphasis on logic, the children are not immune to Trump’s hyperbole when he warns Americans about potential terrorists slipping into the country. “They’re very afraid of the uncertainty of the Trump presidency,” he said.
His main challenge this year has been helping his students to dissect the new president’s policy proposals. “A typical question I’ve been getting is, ‘Trump seems to be more powerful than we’ve learned about the powers of the President,’” he said, “or, ‘What happened to checks and balances?’”
Susso said that his teaching is now focused around building a sense of safety informed by rational thought. “My goal is that they understand that institutions and systems in place long before the Trump presidency will prevail in preserving the ideals that this nation was founded on.”
Susso, 32, is uniquely suited to teach these lessons. He emigrated from Gambia 16 years ago to join his father in upstate New York. Growing up in Gambia, he developed retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative and incurable genetic eye disease that makes it difficult for him to see in darkness or bright light. When his younger sister Binta contracted Hepatitis B, she tried to join her father and brother in order to seek medical treatment, but complex immigration processes and regulations kept her in Gambia. She died from her illness in 2008 at the age of 19.
The two experiences led Susso to dedicate himself to improving the lives of immigrants like himself. He first planned to become an immigration lawyer, before deciding that he could make the most difference by becoming a teacher. His work at International Community High School is so important to him that he commutes four hours round trip from Poughkeepsie to work every day.
Though he retains only 20/70 vision in one eye, his energy and connection in the classroom feel boundless. He strides the length and depth of the room as he teaches, laughing at his students’ jokes, offering to buy them lunch or give them a homework pass for the night if they can answer an important question correctly. His lessons are peppered with vocabulary drills. “Do you know that word I just used? Do you know what ‘perpetuate’ means?” His students have ideas, and he wants them to have the tools to express them.
Each class begins with music to rev up the crowd — popular songs like Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” or The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” An appointed student then leads the class in a pledge to apply themselves. It ends with, “Today I will do whatever is needed of me to get the knowledge and wisdom so I can fulfill my goals, desires and expectations.”
Susso begins all his classes this way. He developed the method for a separate 12th grade curriculum he wrote himself, the Inspiring Teens program. During their senior year, students at International Community High School are invited to take an extra class created to develop five strengths: mindset, vision, interpersonal communications, leadership and financial management. The opening music and pledge are two of the devices borrowed from the Inspiring Teens program that he now includes in all of his history and debate classes as well.
Susso uses what he calls a relationship-based approach. “It’s the ability to peel away our cultural cataracts, because the social lens through which we see becomes opaque,” he said, “and to cultivate empathy with students in order to emotionally connect with them.” It is an especially important step in his process at ICHS, where students come from diverse cultures and speak 16 different languages. He strives to build well-rounded students, which he defines as those who excel at eloquent speaking, purposeful reading, persuasive writing and critical thinking.
Susso said that at first no one at the school thought that students would attend his 8 a.m. supplemental classes targeted at those students who are chronically late. But they came, often showing up a half hour early for class. “If learning makes an immediate impact on a student’s life, they tend to show up,” said Susso.
In 2015, the year after Susso launched an extracurricular Inspiring Teens program, the 12th grade’s History Regents results jumped from 29 to 69 percent. His students’ pass rate of these tests is over 90 percent. One hundred percent of those who have participated in the program for credit have graduated and gone on to college, compared with the school-wide rate of 40 percent.
These results are one reason Susso was nominated for this year’s Global Teacher Prize, which carried a $1 million award. He made it to the top 40 finalists at the global conference in Dubai earlier this month. He pledged to use the prize money to expand Inspiring Teens to other New York City Schools, to offer the curriculum globally online, and to create college scholarships for its graduates.
The work has become even more urgent since Trump issued his contested travel bans, and ICE raids became more threatening in New York and throughout the U.S.
Guidance Counselor Perez created bilingual cards in Spanish and English for children to carry in their wallets to instruct them on what to say if stopped by ICE. “Right now I am choosing to exercise my legal rights,” the cards read. “I will remain silent, and I refuse to answer your questions. If I am detained, I have the right to contact an attorney immediately. I refuse to sign anything without advice from an attorney. Thank you.”
The streets that are normally bustling with activity were now empty, said Perez, who was out on Tremont and Ronkonkoma Avenues in the South Bronx on a Saturday night after rumored ICE raids on factories and grocery stores in the outer boroughs. “Everybody was home,” he said. “I have kids afraid to come to school. At the end of the day, this is a government office.”
Perez said his greatest fear is returning to school next September to find that he would be required by law to ask students whether they are documented or not. He no longer believes New York is a true sanctuary city. “They can cut funding if we don’t comply,” he said. “They can take special ed, the poverty program, bilingual ed. It’s the top government officials, what can we do?”
Nassira Hamdi, the parent professional at the school, said that she had organized a legal fair for students and their families after the presidential election. Pro-bono attorneys counseled them on their rights as immigrants and offered their services to those who might be undocumented and wanted to change that status.
Similarly Joedith Medrano, the school social worker, is holding another information session to connect students with immigration lawyers who will assist those who need to travel back to their countries of origin to visit relatives.
Back in Room 418 after February break, Susso’s work continued on a more philosophical level. He delayed a new unit on economics and opportunity in order to revisit his students’ travel ban debate.
“What is your number one value?” he asked. “What are the principles that guide your life?”
“Education,” said Jamayris from the Dominican Republic. But would she go to school even if her mother said she was no longer allowed to? Yes, absolutely. “It’s my future.”
“Religion,” said Hasanul from Bangladesh. But what if the next time to pray is 1 pm, and you’re here in class? Would you pray out in the hall? Hasanul laughed. “Probably not.”
“Peace,” said Yasser from Yemen. But what if someone slapped him for no reason? “If someone slapped me, you’d see them in the emergency room.”
“See how easy it is to break your values?” asked Susso. “Now what are the values the United States is founded on?”
“Democracy, liberty, natural rights, equality.” The class knew them by heart.
“If you chip away at the foundation of a building, it will eventually fall down,” said Susso. “You’re getting older. You will be tested. It’s important to know what your values are.” Susso paused as this sank in.
“While deciding on what should be our immigration law,” he said, “you forgot everything this country is founded on.”
The students nodded. Democracy, liberty, natural rights, equality. It was a lot to have on the line.
Hasanul’s hand shot up, “I changed my mind.”