Robe Roberson is a 5’2” Korean man with an Australian accent. Or so he tells me in an email before we’ve met. In fact, he turns out to be a 6’9” African-American guy with a mischievous grin and stubbly beard. “Sorry,” he says, laughing apologetically when I meet him. “I’m used to saying crazy stuff with the kids. You work around teenagers too long, you forget what normal people are like.” He goes by Robe, with a long final e. (If you’re dying to know his actual first name, a few minutes on google will tell you that it is Lynn.)
Robe grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, a town whose claim to fame, he says, was “an apple or an onion or two,” plus a few vineyards. After high school, he took five years to graduate college, lost in what he described as “a swath of interests but no focus.” He got married, thinking it would make his life more interesting and push him to finish college. Afterwards, he taught nearby in farm country, staying there for a few years, switching to coaching, then finally burning out from overinvolvement in his students’ lives. Rapport with students was easy for him. Balance was less easy. “I lost my focus,” he said. “I lost my family.”
He rebuilt his life, landing at University Prep, an elite private school in Seattle with many families from the tech industry. After fighting the bureaucracy of a public school system, Robe loved it. Classes were small, the atmosphere was collaborative and he loved the challenge of working with demanding parents who expected a big bang for the $25,000 tuition they were paying. “I had to expose what I was doing thematically, I had to really defend what I was doing, it was like: okay, it’s business, here we go. These kids did their work every night. I had to do a kick-ass job.”
As time passed, he began to dream of starting a foundation for kids, a non-profit program he can run when he’s done teaching. In pursuit of that dream and in the midst of a breakup with a girlfriend, he “spun the dial” and ended up in Los Angeles, where he landed at Campbell Hall Episcopal Day School. Robe loves the academic freedom and the challenge of working closely with a supportive team of faculty who are at the top of their game. Like Jennifer at Cleveland Humanities Magnet, being part of a highly collaborative team is part of what makes his job meaningful.
Teaching small classes of 15 or so allows him to work closely with individual students, something he finds especially meaningful in an American Lit class. “American authors are individuals telling stories of their own lives and trying to come to their own personal understanding. They’re saying ‘Who am I? Do I have a voice?’ American Literature is really a grassroots uprising of all of those individual voices.”
Though his class of 15 could not be more different demographically than Dennis Danziger’s class of 50 at Venice High, like Dennis, he believes in letting his students do most of the talking. As Robe sees it, his role is to be on the sidelines as “the stirrer of the pot,” throwing in questions if the students lose focus or miss a point. Does the American Dream exist? If we’re the best country in the world, what is the price we’ve paid to be where we are, the price in blood and war? What’s the role of race? Religion? And if we’re not the best country in the world, is that so terrible? Why is it so hard to say?
He believes that what we’re really teaching in any literature class is the art of conversation—again, as Dennis does. How do you listen? How do you use evidence to prove your point? He reads their writing carefully, working closely with each student to develop an individual style and point of view. Their first writing assignment this year was to mimic the writing style of the Declaration of Independence and write their own personal declaration. What oppresses them? What kind of freedom do they need?
For Robe, these questions will be seen all year through the lens of American Literature. But the answers will always be individual. “What I love about American Literature is that it holds up a mirror in front of you. By the end of the year, I want all of my students to have found their own individual voices. I want them to be able to say: this is my part in the American Dream. And I want them to be able to defend it logically.”
And as I’m soon to learn, he’s not kidding. If you go into his class, you’d better come prepared to defend your ideas. Otherwise, you’ll end up…well, the way I did. Who knew I should have done the reading?