Observed on the cover page of the Inspiring Teens’ Futures Program Book
“Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills.” Jim Rohn
In the poorest congressional district in the United States, Alhassan Susso urgently arrives at work before school begins and leads zero period, or, the Inspiring Teens’ Futures program. Alhassan teaches his students about leadership, professionalism, and communication skills. But, it’s Alhassan’s mastery of communication that allows him to clearly connect with his pupils: “The more you learn and understand the world, the better you can see.” he says. Mr. Susso, who is legally blind and has lived with 20/80 vision in one eye for most of his life due to retinitis pigmentation (a rare disease that blinds by working its way from the periphery to the eye’s center), doesn’t let any obstacle stand in his way. Alhassan wakes up at 4:00 am every morning to travel four hours to and from work in the South Bronx. Alhassan’s relentless commitment to his students has been formed by personal hardship, tragedy and, most importantly, perseverance.
As the son of one of Gambia’s most renowned Griots, Alhaji “Papa” Susso of the Mandinka tribe, Alhassan knows the importance of communication, more specifically, the power of storytelling. “Griots have a long history dating back to the Mali Empire during the 13th Century. They were important to leaders as they helped them maintain power” says Alhassan. The Griot storyteller is responsible for preserving and orating the stories of West African families in order to keep the culture and traditions of their people alive. As a history teacher Alhassan helps his students better understand where they are in their own particular stories and how to create a vision for what they want in life. Mr. Susso often guides his class in creating Dream Boards (paper boards featuring magazine and print out clippings pasted onto them) to illustrate what students want to achieve and how to begin developing their goals and accomplishing them. This “show and tell” subtly allows Alhassan to teach his students the ways of the Griot, a reality they may not even be aware of.
At Bronx International High School all of the students are immigrants, like Alhassan once was, newly arrived and unsure of their new environment. To be admitted into the school, students must not have lived more than four years in the United States, and with sparse parental involvement in their daily lives (as many of them work multiple minimum wage jobs), assimilation can be tough. On a recent class trip to Philadelphia funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Alhassan’s students were able to bond and develop camaraderie. “The trip really serves as the culmination of the things we learned in class,” says Alhassan “they become much closer than ever before and over the weekend they shared personal struggles and realized they’re in this together.”
When Alhassan arrived in America from Gambia at the age of sixteen, he enrolled at Poughkeepsie High School. It was there, under the tutelage of Alhassan’s favorite teacher, Ms. Felter, that the young man developed the skills that have propelled him to write a memoir, obtain a masters degree in education, and become the 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year. Among other things, Ms. Felter laid the groundwork for the Inspiring Teens’ Futures program by helping Alhassan find shelter when he was homeless and welcoming him to Poughkeepsie High with open arms. Ms. Felter‘s warmth and dedication to her students is visible to this day in Mr. Susso’s teaching methodology, as her practices of allowing students to keep their coats securely stowed away in her classroom and meeting with students before and after class to have one on one conversations, are some of the things that Mr. Susso often does. Ms. Felter’s belief in treating her students with respect and dignity allowed Alhassan to embrace his importance as an individual. Alhassan relates one of his favorite quotes to his favorite teacher “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants, well, my giant was Ms. Felter.”
In 2008, Alhassan and his family fought to bring his sister, Binta, to the United States after she had contracted Hepatitis B, to properly treat her disease. Two conditions needed to be met in order for Binta to receive a visa to travel to the United States. First, a doctor and a hospital would need to be pre-arranged for Binta’s treatment upon her arrival in America. Secondly, proof of $25,000 for Binta’s treatment would need to be raised and presented to the American embassy in Gambia. Alhassan was able to arrange both requirements. Bronx Lebanon Hospital would host Binta and Dr. Umana (another Gambian in Alhassan’s journey) would treat her. The money for Binta’s treatment was lent to Alhassan by his boss Mark, the owner of the Stop and Shop where he bagged groceries at. After a seemingly well interview, Binta returned home enthusiastic about the impending visa she would be granted, but she never received the visa and to this day Alhassan doesn’t know why. “We provided everything that they had asked for and Dr. Umana even had a connection with the visa counselor. But they denied it.” says Alhassan.
After an ensuing four month legal battle Alhassan received a phone call, while eating a slice of pizza, that changed his life forever. On November 21, 2008 at 7:33 pm (around 1:00 am in Gambia), Alhassan’s father phoned him and simply stated “Your sister is gone.” Alhassan fainted. When he woke and got his bearings Alhassan called his grandmother, Aminata, who lived in Gambia who consoled him and tried to make him feel better. “You’ve done everything that you could for your sister,” said Aminata “now it’s time to move on.” But three hours later Alhassan received another phone call, once again it was his father, this time he said “Your grandmother is gone.” Aminata Susso died of a heart attack. In the Muslim tradition of his people Alhassan flew to his homeland the following day, buried his sister at 10:00 am, and his grandmother at 3:00 pm. Today they rest side by side in Gambia.
The passing of Alhassan’s grandmother and sister are two of the events that have motivated him to help his students reach out and try to grasp the American dream, something that Binta was desperately trying to do. What gives Alhassan the greatest satisfaction as a teacher is the sight of his students on graduation day. “To see where they started, their daily progress, and where they are going brings me most joy.” says Alhassan. Whether it’s waking up early to attend Mr. Susso’s program or reading Victor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning in class, students are taught to never give up and to continue striving to obtain their dreams. Alhassan notes “Teens think their problems are cumbersome, but when they read about someone like Victor Frankl finding meaning in Auschwitz, they realize there is no problem they cannot solve.”
The foreseeable future looks bright for Alhassan and the students of Bronx International High. A trip to Massachusetts is being planned for the spring and Mr. Susso’s popularity has already attracted Department of Education officials to observe the Inspiring Teens’ Futures program for other schools. After all, the school’s graduation rate shot up from 31% to over 80% since Alhassan arrived at Bronx International High. But in the meantime, the 2018 New York State teacher of the year is able to help his students remember where they came from, who they are and focus on where they want to go. Day by day, during every 8:00 am zero period, a Griot in the South Bronx helps his students tell their own stories.